You don't have to look very far (Zions Bank, for example, or the Jordan River) to see the affinity that early Mormon settlers felt for Judaism.
A century and a half later, it's still "a unique and special relationship," says Mark Paredes, who is both director of Jewish relations for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Southern California and outreach director for the American Jewish Congress.
Paredes, a lawyer who speaks seven languages, has served as a foreign service officer in the U.S. Consulate in Guadalajara, Mexico, and the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel. He is also the former press attache of the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles.
"This is the gospel truth," says Paredes, "there is no church that's been around for as long as our church has that has the record we have with the Jewish people. We have a continuous record of support."
The LDS Church has no history of anti-Semitism, he says. "A lot of churches who now are supportive of Israel are apologizing for past anti-Semitism, as well they should, but we don't have anything to apologize for."
Paredes was in Salt Lake City this week to speak to B'Nai Shalom (Children of Peace), a group made up mostly of Jewish converts to Mormonism. His advice to B'Nai Shalom members: Use respect and discretion when talking about Mormonism with members of the Jewish religion. Paredes cites anecdotes in which well-meaning converts have told Jews, "I used to be Jewish, but now I'm a convert. You should try it."
The LDS Church has raised the ire of some Jews because of its history of doing posthumous baptisms of Holocaust victims. But that wasn't church policy, Paredes insists. "There were only nine people responsible" for those baptisms, he says.
The LDS affinity for Judaism stems in part, he says, from the belief that Mormons are members of the house of Israel, a belief that "causes us to regard the Jews as more our brothers than other Christians do."
Jews have flourished in Salt Lake City, says Paredes, who notes that the city elected a Jewish mayor in 1932 years before New York City did and that the first two Jewish governors in America were from Utah and Idaho, states with large LDS populations.
These days, the LDS Church's public affairs office in Southern California conducts outreach efforts to the Chinese, Korean, African-American and Muslim communities, in addition to the 600,000 Jews who live in the Los Angeles area, Paredes says.
LDS Church members serve on the speakers bureaus of the Anti-Defamation League and the Consulate General of Israel, for example, and the Los Angeles Jewish Genealogical Society has a library in the LDS Church's Family History Center there. Last year the LDS Church and the American Jewish Congress co-sponsored an interfaith panel on Israel and Judaism, and a member of the LDS Church was master of ceremonies for the annual Israel Festival in Encino, the largest Jewish festival in the West, he says.
But the LDS Church, for all its "philosemitism," Paredes says, makes it a point not to take political positions or make political statements about the Middle East."The church is in 170 countries," he says. "If it started making political statements on issue X in the Middle East, I have no doubt that the next day the in box of the president of the church would be filled with queries in, let's say, Spain, asking 'how do you feel about Basques,' or from the members in India, 'how about the Kashmir problem.' ... It's just a dead-end when you head down that road."
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