In 1894, Alfred Dreyfus, a young French artillery officer of Jewish origin, was framed and unjustly convicted of spying for Germany. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in the distant, dreaded penal colony called Devil's Island, and placed in solitary confinement.
His trial, and the long, tumultuous, ultimately successful campaign to exonerate and free him, constitutes its own dramatic story.
Covering the Dreyfus case was an Austrian journalist named Theodor Herzl. Himself an assimilated, secularized Jew, he was horrified to see Paris mobs chanting "Death to the Jews!"
Badly shaken, Herzl concluded that Jews would never really be accepted in Europe, that they needed to move elsewhere and defend themselves.
In 1896, he published a pivotal book entitled "Der Judenstaat" ("The Jewish State"). In 1897, in Basel, Switzerland, he chaired the First Zionist Congress, which declared that "Zionism seeks for the Jewish people a publicly recognized, legally secured homeland in Palestine."
After Hitler's Holocaust in Europe, anti-Semitism fell out of fashion, at least among decent and respectable citizens. Well into modern times, though, it had been a common, even socially acceptable, prejudice.
Asked once whether he had ever experienced bigotry, Groucho Marx replied that, yes, he had. Hoping to join a Long Island beach club decades before, he had been told that he wasn't eligible because he was Jewish.
"My son's only half Jewish," he replied, trying to make light of an appalling insult. "Would it be all right if he went in the water up to his knees?" The Nazi genocide convinced many that Herzl had been right to seek a Jewish homeland, and, in 1948, the state of Israel was born. The following year, his remains were moved from Vienna for reburial on "Mount Herzl" — Israel's national cemetery — in Jerusalem.
Appropriately, Yad Vashem, the heart-wrenching Holocaust museum and memorial, is located nearby.
Against this background, it's remarkable, even startling, that the Book of Mormon, published in 1830, expressly condemns anti-Semitism — so far as I'm aware, the only scriptural text, from any tradition, that does so.
The Bible, says the Lord to Nephi, "shall proceed forth from the Jews, mine ancient covenant people. And what thank they the Jews for the Bible which they receive from them? Yea, what do the Gentiles mean? Do they remember the travails, and the labors, and the pains of the Jews, and their diligence unto me, in bringing forth salvation unto the Gentiles?
"O ye Gentiles, have ye remembered the Jews, mine ancient covenant people? Nay; but ye have cursed them, and have hated them, and have not sought to recover them. But behold, I will return all these things upon your own heads; for I the Lord have not forgotten my people" (2 Nephi 29:4-5).
"Yea," wrote the prophet Mormon, "and ye need not any longer hiss, nor spurn, nor make game of the Jews, nor of any remnant of the house of Israel; for behold, the Lord remembereth his covenant unto them, and he will do unto them according to that which he hath sworn" (3 Nephi 29:8).
Mormonism, in fact, has a long record of philo-Semitism, friendship toward Jews.
Dispatched by Joseph Smith more than half a century before the Dreyfus trial, Orson Hyde of the Council of the Twelve Apostles ascended the Mount of Olives in October 1841 and dedicated Palestine for the return of the Jews.
The first Jewish cemetery in Utah was established in 1866 on land donated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; the first Reform temple in Salt Lake was funded by the Church. In 1867, at Brigham Young's invitation, High Holy Day services for Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur were observed in the church's Seventies Hall.
The cornerstone of a new Salt Lake synagogue was laid in 1903, accompanied by a dedicatory address from President Joseph F. Smith; the church had made a large contribution toward its construction.
The fourth governor of Utah, among America's earliest elected Jewish governors, was Simon Bamberger, who served 1917-1921. During his campaign, anti-Semitic publications viciously attacked him. Community and Church leaders denounced them; Elder B.H. Roberts nominated him at the state's Democratic convention.
Louis Marcus was elected mayor of heavily LDS Salt Lake City in 1932, serving in that office until his 1936 death.
It's a remarkable record, on the whole, and deeply rooted in the Book of Mormon.
Daniel C. Peterson is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at BYU, where he also serves as editor in chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative and as director of outreach for the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. He is the founder of MormonScholarsTestify.org.
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