At first blush, one might think that Mormons and Jews have little in common beyond their status as minority faiths in America. But over the past few years we have actually found a great many commonalities, and these have been the focus of our efforts at the Anti-Defamation League to reach out and solidify the relationship through dialogue.
The goal has been to deepen our bonds and discuss ways to work together to reduce prejudice in the United States and the world.
As part of this ongoing dialogue, I had the privilege last spring of spending several days in Salt Lake City, meeting with the leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints – commonly known as the Mormon Church – and visiting their incredible facilities, including the state-of-the-art church where the Mormon Tabernacle Choir performs.
As minority faiths in the world, we share many concerns. Mormons and Jews both continue to face prejudice and discrimination in our own country and around the globe. Indeed, we discussed the troubling rise in anti-Mormon sentiments during the 2008 presidential campaign when Massachusetts Republican Gov. Mitt Romney, an LDS member, sought the Republican presidential nomination.
Our honest and candid discussions opened the door to a crucial conversation about an ongoing problem between the Mormon Church and the Jewish people: the church's religious practice of "posthumous proxy baptism" and Holocaust victims.
As a Holocaust survivor, I have been involved for more than 15 years with a coalition of Jewish community leaders working with LDS Church leaders to prevent the posthumous baptizing of Holocaust victims. Despite written agreements, these problems had never been resolved, causing much pain to the families of Holocaust victims.
In truth, the issue is complicated and emotional, and has led to misunderstandings and tensions between our two faith communities.
On the one hand, the practice of posthumous baptism is a core religious rite in the LDS Church, and has been fundamental to the Mormon faith since its early history in the 19th Century. The church believes the ritual is required for the dead to reach heaven. In fact, the church encourages its own members to perform proxy baptisms not only for their own departed ancestors but for members of other faith groups, including Jews.
For the Jewish people, the idea of "posthumous baptism" is deeply disturbing, given the history of forced baptisms practiced for centuries against European Jews. Not only does it feel like an act of intolerance, but it rejects the Jewish belief that we are redeemed through the Torah and God's irrevocable Covenant with Moses and the Jewish people at Sinai.
But more offensive to the Jewish community was the discovery of the proxy baptizing of Jewish Holocaust victims. This causes deep pain for Holocaust survivors who discover, sometimes by accident, that their parents or relatives were found on the Internet to have been baptized by the Mormon Church without permission or notification. In many cases, Holocaust victims had no descendants to even be able to protest the posthumous baptism. The fact is, Holocaust victims were born Jews, lived as Jews, and died because they were Jews. They would not have chosen to be baptized in life. So we survivors had to stand up and be a voice for the voiceless.
After many years of negotiations, talks between the Jewish and Mormon leadership to eliminate the posthumous baptism of Holocaust victims broke down last year. So when I met with church leaders last April we discussed if we could not find a way forward. Approached in friendship and good will, we attained a deeper understanding of the problems and the concerns felt in both faith communities.
Particularly important was our discussion about how posthumous baptizing of Holocaust victims insidiously legitimizes Holocaust denial. As I explained to them, in 40 years, people checking on the Internet would not see Holocaust victims, but baptized Mormons.
As a result of these and other conversations between Mormon and Jewish leaders, a historic breakthrough was achieved.
Last month, LDS leaders acknowledged that the church's practice of proxy baptism had "unintentionally caused pain" because of the inclusion of Holocaust victims in the religious rite. They announced that a new computer systems and policies have been put in place that should prevent the names of Holocaust victims from being included in LDS lists for proxy baptisms. Under the new church policies, Mormons will be required to certify names submitted to the church's genealogical database for baptism. Additional safeguards include monitoring those names for submissions that don't meet policy standards, and the removal of unacceptable names.
This action will be felt around the world and will help eliminate a festering source of tension between the Mormon and Jewish communities, strengthening our ability to cooperate on important issues in the United States and across the globe.
It will enhance the already sterling relationship between the LDS Church and the State of Israel, where thousands of young Mormon college students study every year at the Brigham Young University Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies.
We sincerely appreciate and applaud the leadership of the Mormon Church for demonstrating such extraordinary sensitivity on the Holocaust baptism issue. Together we are proving that open and honest dialogue can indeed lead us to greater understanding and a better, more respectful world for us, and our children.
Abraham H. Foxman is the National Director of the Anti-Defamation League. His books include "The Deadliest Lies: The Israel Lobby and the Myth of Jewish Control" and the forthcoming "Jews and Money: The Story of a Stereotype" (Palgrave Macmillan, November 2010).