Signing the lease and occupancy agreement for Brigham Young University's Jersualem Center for Near Eastern Studies represents one of the greatest accomplishments toward pluralism in Jerusualem, according to the center's former director.
David Galbraith, director of the BYU program for 15 years, said, "Pluralism in Jerusalem is important because the city is important to the Jewish and Christians alike."Signing the lease was not only a great step in the eyes of Galbraith, but also in the eyes of the mayor of Jersualem, Teddy Kollek. The mayor considers the signing one of the major steps toward pluralism since the creation of the state, Galbraith said.
"It was important to the mayor to see us establish a presence in Jerusalem. Except for a small religious minority a considerable percent of the population is in favor of a pluralistic society where Moslems, Christians and Jews interact in a positive way together."
Without the mayor's support and support from many other government ministries, the BYU director said signing the renewable 49-year lease may have never happened.
The lease was signed May 18 following eight years of struggle and uncertainty surrounding the project.
Four years earlier, a development lease was signed to allow construction of the $20 million center located on government-controlled land.
The lease agreement approved by the Israeli Cabinet last month was revised to strengthen the language prohibiting BYU students, faculty and staff associated with the Jerusalem Center from proselyting for The Church Of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, BYU's sponsor.
Outspoken ultraorthodox Jews have opposed the construction of the center, fearing that the facility would be used in proselyting efforts for the LDS Church.
According to Galbraith, that powerful minority is opposed to anything that is not Jewish. "The opposition is not just aimed at Mormons - it's aimed at anyone who is not of the Jewish faith."
Even in the height of opposition, only a small percentage of the population, 10 percent, reflected the orthodox community, he said. "Initially opposition was much higher, but through a concerted public relations effort, we were able to satisfy the vast majority that our purpose for being there was for academics and not for missionary motives."
Galbraith said the LDS Church gained a great deal of support and sympathy from Israelis after they realized that the BYU Study Abroad program had been in Jerusalem for 17 to 18 years without anyone ever engaging in proselyting.
When construction began, Galbraith said the visibility sparked opposition, which grew to great extremes in that period. However, he said, "it was relatively easy to turn the public opinion in our favor because Israelis are in favor of academic institutions.
Galbraith and his family call Jerusalem their home, even though they were the focus of opposition throughout the controversy in the Holy Land. "Our challenge now is to address the small minority and help them have a greater understanding and at least have an accommodation with them. We want to live at peace in the community as we really have over most of the years."
Much has been accomplished since the center was built and the lease was signed, but Galbraith calls that the "bricks and mortar phase of our presence in Jerusalem. Only as we develop new curriculum and encourage Latter-day Saints from all over the world to study in the Holy Land do we give life to the bricks and mortar."
He said many people worldwide have expressed concern about the security situation in Israel as conflicts have flared between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians in the area, but the center has continued to fill up.
"By having our own facility, our own food and our own accommodations, there's a certain level of anxiety that we've been able to alleviate. It's easier to come to Israel when you know you are staying in a facility that we control, and that is secure."
Galbraith, his wife, and two of their five children are leaving their home in Jerusalem for a year's sabbatical in Johannesburg, South Africa. He plans to publish a book in the area of conflict management, following the theme of his doctorate studies, and has also been commissioned to write a textbook on Israeli/Eurpoean conflict.
He will then return to Jerusalem for two years to write a history of BYU's presence in Israel.