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There are no people in the world who understand Jews as Mormons do, Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, once told future LDS President Ezra Taft Benson.
That is a sentiment Mormon speaker Mark Paredes repeated and enlarged Wednesday evening in an hourlong lecture to an audience of mostly Mormons at Salt Lake City's Jewish Community Center.
"I will never tire of saying that Mormons have much more to say to Jews than do other Christians," Paredes said in a wide-ranging speech, touching on LDS history and scripture as well as various aspects of Christian theology, his experiences with U.S. State Department training, Jewish organizations in Los Angeles, and how he walks the line with Mormon and Jewish friends.
Paredes was baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at age 11, served a Mormon mission to Italy, graduated from Brigham Young University and has worked for LDS Public Affairs in Southern California.
But his connection to and interest in Judaism goes back to his Michigan childhood, with family friends, a Jewish preschool and pen pal, and Holocaust survivors at his high school. The Mormon convert learned Hebrew, worked as a diplomat in the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv and became the press attaché to the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles.
Today, he blogs for the Jewish Journal, the only non-Jew to do so.
Paredes sees parallels between the two faiths everywhere and on every level.
"We believe, as a people, we are modern-day Israelites who build temples, have the priesthood, are led by prophets, believe in Elijah's second coming, claim the blessings of the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants," he said, "and support the establishment of the state of Israel."
Mormons were among the earliest and most dedicated supporters of the Jewish state, he said. LDS apostle Orson Hyde traveled to the Holy Land in 1841 and dedicated it for the gathering of Jews. A year later, Mormon founder Joseph Smith penned the church's 13 Articles of Faith, including this statement: "We believe in the literal gathering of Israel and in the restoration of the Ten Tribes."
After the creation of the state of Israel in 1947, LDS President George Albert Smith publicly and privately assured prominent Jews that the Mormon hierarchy would back their homeland. Four years later, the LDS Church was the first major religion to buy the Israeli government's bonds.
BYU has been sending students to study in Israel since 1968 and opened a beautiful study center on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem in 1987. LDS President Spencer W. Kimball received the medal of the City of Jerusalem.
And the relationship continues.
"When I worked for the Israeli Consulate in L.A.," Paredes said, "the consul general would meet with the LDS Church president at least once a year."
The two faiths also have suffered at the hands of various Christians.
"History shows that the nearly 14 million members of our church, which has been the most persecuted major religion in American history," Paredes said, "do have special feelings for the 13 million members of the most persecuted religion in world history [the Jews]."
In 2007, a Christian ministry distributed 18,000 anti-Mormon DVDs to homes throughout Arizona. The only non-LDS group to denounce the effort was the Jewish Anti-Defamation League in Phoenix. When Paredes, who was working with the LDS Public Affairs Council at the time, called the ADL's regional office to offer thanks, one of the leaders remarked, "They can't fool me, Mark. I know that the anti-Mormons of today were in many cases the anti-Semites of yesterday."
State-sponsored anti-Semitism began, according to Paredes, in the fourth century at the Council of Nicea. The assembled Christian bishops proclaimed that Jews are "odious," "detestable" and "blind," Paredes said. "It is not a coincidence that the same council that condemned Jews also proclaimed the false doctrine of the Trinity, a three-in-one god that does not exist. Both Jews and Mormons reject the Trinity, and we both reject anti-Semitism as a departure from true faith in God."
Missions and temples
Still, Mormon proselytizing and proxy baptisms of Holocaust victims have troubled many Jews, who long have suffered from Christian missionary zeal. Paredes has had to assure his Jewish friends that the American-born church does not target Jews and has kept its promise not to proselytize in Israel. He personally does not assist LDS missionaries teaching Jewish investigators.
In the end, he said, it comes down to one-on-one interactions between Mormons and Jews based on mutual respect.
A Los Angeles rabbi who toured the LDS temple in Draper with Paredes during its 2009 open house took off his yarmulke when he entered the celestial room, saying it was one of the holiest places he had ever been.
Later, the 75-year-old rabbi described his experience in a letter.
"There was a feeling of honest brotherhood in all of these gatherings that I have never experienced before at any of these [interfaith] functions," the rabbi wrote. "There was a real spiritual connection that we felt … a feeling of such intimacy that I had, that we all had. … This was real, this was honest, this was God."
A few of the Jews among the 50-plus audience members Wednesday questioned Paredes' interpretation of Jewish theology and wondered why there wasn't a Jewish counterpart on the program. But others responded enthusiastically to Paredes' speech.
"For me, he's very inspirational," said Arthur Hertz, who attends Congregation Kol Ami, Utah's largest synagogue, and was instrumental in bringing Paredes to town.
Hertz said he was amazed at how well Mormons treated Jews when he first moved to the state about three years ago.
Paredes, he said, is the "epitome of that graciousness."