The Latter-day Saint Guide to Combating Antisemitism

When Jason Olson—then a 14-year-old Jewish teenager—was offered a Book of Mormon by two well-meaning classmates, he didn’t know what to do with it. What does an orthodox Jewish teenager with orthodox Jewish parents do with a book like this? Giving it back would be offensive to his friends; leaving it on his desk or in his room would offend his parents. For months it gathered dust in his backpack. Eventually, Olson settled on a logical compromise: he would burn it.

One night, Olson went outside with a lighter in one hand and the book in the other. As he raised the book to the flame, he heard a voice in his head. “Don’t burn my book,” they said. Olson shook it off. He raised the lighter again and the voice returned. “Go to your room and read my book.”

Elder D. Todd Christofferson spoke about Olson’s unique introduction to the Church at the April 2020 general conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Olson, now several decades removed from that transformative experience, repeated this story and others in his recently published book, The Burning Book: A Jewish-Mormon Memoir.

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Olson’s clear narrative takes the reader through his upbringing as an Orthodox Jew to his initiation into Latter-day Saints by two classmates. Olson’s later years were spent balancing his Jewish heritage and beliefs with his new Christian discoveries. His view of the Book of Mormon is unique, heavily influenced by Jewish theology and custom, and he sees it as a “Middle Testament” bridging the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament.

He adds a new pair of eyes to Latter-day Saint belief—just as sure as Christians believe that first-century Jews were wrong about Christ, for example, Olson argues: “Christians missed something by misunderstanding the meaning of the Temple.” The book is full of nuggets of general moral wisdom (“Some of the pain we cause comes from sin; some comes just from the stresses of life”) and urges ecumenical understanding (“God is certainly great enough to work with the pieces of truth in all kinds of traditions”).

Olson’s unique upbringing prepared him for a series of multi-religious experiences: after his conversion to Christianity disqualified him from participating in a birthright tour of many young Jews to Israel, he served on a Latter-day Saint mission in New Jersey (one of the areas with the highest concentration of American Jews). He graduated from BYU’s Ancient Near Eastern Studies/Hebrew Bible program and Brandeis University’s Middle Eastern and Judaic Studies program. He lived in Israel and served as a chaplain in the US military.

As the US sees a record spike in antisemitic incidents, Olson’s book serves both as a window into religious pluralism and as a guide to understanding how to combat modern antisemitism.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Deseret News: We see a terrifying wave of anti-Semitism in the United States. And we could go through examples of Attacks on synagogues to anti-Semitic rhetoric. What can we do – and I say we as Americans together – to fight anti-Semitism?

Jason Olson: The first thing that comes to mind is a great Holocaust scholar, Timothy Snyder. What he wrote really speaks to me. I believe that the true source of antisemitism is the desire to eliminate or silence voices of moral conscience. The most extreme expression of anti-Semitism was Nazism and Hitler’s ideology.

Hitler wanted people to think of themselves as a species – that different races are different species. The reason he despised Jews so much was because he believed Jews introduced a certain concept of conscience and morality into the world. The other Jewish idea that Hitler hated was that every human being was created in the image of God, and the idea that there might be racial cultures or ethnic cultures, but at the end of the day all human beings descended from the same parents, Adam and Eve.

“If we have common parents, why are we so divided?”

So, in a Jewish conception, race really isn’t that important in the sense that it should divide humanity. Abraham Joshua Heschel makes this point really clear that every human being descended from Adam and Eve. If we have common parents, why are we so divided? Conscience and humanity in the image of God – these are the ideas that Jews brought into the world from a National Socialist point of view.

So how do we fight anti-Semitism? We recognize the Jewish people and Judaism as our partners in building a world where we embrace conscience and morality. We welcome the humanity of every human being.

DN: In many ways you write about Jews and Latter-day Saints as brothers and sisters. Do you see the Latter-day Saints as having a special role or any additional responsibility in combating anti-Semitism in all its forms?

Olson: I think it’s built into the recovery. You know, we’re all children of God. In Judaism it is said that everyone is made in the image of God. In the Latter-day Saint tradition, everyone is a child of God. So as we look at racial diversity in the church, we can work with Jewish people to embrace racial diversity and humanity. We also have a tradition of Orson Hyde and the restoration of a Jewish state. The Prophet Joseph Smith very early supported Jewish national self-determination and the rebuilding of a Jewish state. So I think if we take the prophetic teachings that we already have and look at them clearly, we can fight antisemitism.

DN: I’m curious how your view of Zionism and the State of Israel has been affected by learning Orson Hyde’s Mission in the Holy Land and this Latter-day Saint perspective of Zion. What unique perspective do Latter-day Saints bring to this contentious issue of the State of Israel and Zionism?

Olson: Great question. While Orson Hyde was being called to his mission to consecrate the Holy Land for the return of the Jewish people, he wrote a letter to Rabbi Solomon Hirschell, Chief Rabbi of the British Empire. We can think of him as the Rabbi Jonathan Sachs of the early 19th century. It’s a way of thinking about who this guy is – it’s like one of the Quorum of the Twelve writing a letter to Rabbi Jonathan Sachs, in blessed memory.

The letter is fascinating because there is no language of conversion or Rabbi Hirschell’s invitation to join the Church. In the letter, Orson Hyde recognizes Rabbi Hirschell as an authentic leader of the Jewish people and an authority in the life of the Jewish people. The letter is primarily about the gathering, about Zionism and about inviting Rabbi Hirschell to be part of this very proto-Zionist project to get the levers working – to wake up the leaders of the Jewish people in Europe, to begin the process of returning to the land of Israel.

It doesn’t say, “Hey, I’m about to embark on this mission of proselytizing Jews in Europe.” It’s not there at all. The point is that I believe Orson Hyde was urging the leaders of the Jewish people to start a World Zionist Congress, which actually didn’t happen until 1897 with Theodor Herzl. But you can see that Orson Hyde really wants that, as I interpret it. So, I mean, that’s pretty educational. I believe that is how the Prophet Joseph Smith and Orson Hyde felt about the Jewish people.

So how do we fight anti-Semitism? … We welcome the humanity of every human being.

It’s this fascinating pluralism. The Prophet Joseph Smith hopes that another religion will be restored. It is this concept of religious pluralism that we hardly concern ourselves with. Restoration, of course, is about restoring all twelve tribes of Israel. But when it comes to Jews, they restore them to their Judaism, which is really interesting.

Even Orson Hyde wrote to Joseph Smith asking: What do I do if there are Jews who convert? And Joseph Smith wrote back and said for Jews who convert, they should come to Zion, they should come to America, the church that the Prophet Joseph established. But for Jews who were not interested in converting, they should gather in the Land of Israel. And so there was a place in Joseph Smith’s mind for Jews to remain Jews, to remain in Judaism, and to have their own restoration.

DN: In the book you write: “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is at its best when it represents a connection between ancient traditions and new knowledge, rather than as a complete replacement for what people had before.” Could you? specify a bit? How do you best see the church as it blends the old with the new?

Olson: I think there’s that strand where there are some that want us to be just a restoration of the New Testament church. And I think the Restoration is more than that. In my view, the Prophet Joseph Smith is clear on this. The restoration is a restoration of Everyone the keys of Everyone the dispensations.

DN: I found your book moving and deeply personal. I’m curious how the idea to write your story came about.

Olson: Well, years ago I had a bishop who said to me, “You really, really have to write your story in a book someday.” At the time, I just didn’t feel ready. But then I had all these other adventures: I served a mission, went to BYU, went to Israel, went to Brandeis, served as a chaplain. And then, as I was transitioning from ministerial counselor to international representative, I received a call from the mission president who was presiding over the Arizona Mesa Mission at my baptism. He said, “Hey, one of the members of the Quorum of the Twelve, Elder Christofferson, would like to share part of your conversion story in general conference. Would you be okay with that?” And I said, “Sure.”

But a lot has happened since I joined the Church. The way I understand the Restoration and the things I’ve learned about Judaism have grown greatly since an 18-year-old version of me told the story — through my trip to Israel, through studying at BYU’s Hebrew Bible program, by receiving a Ph.D. from Brandeis University in Jewish Studies. So I felt like I really needed to update this, and I thought it might be a boon to some other people.



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