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Cover image via ChurchofJesusChrist.org.
“If I have a little twitch, and one eye goes closed,” began Elder Jeffrey R. Holland at the 30th Anniversary Celebration of the BYU Jerusalem Center in Provo last week, “It’s because I’m going to have written on my tombstone these words…‘He never pulled a handcart, he did not fight at Hawn’s Mill. He was never incarcerated at Liberty Jail, but he did work on the BYU Jerusalem Center.’”
Yes, the Jerusalem Center gets deep into the heart of those who spend time with it. Though I have nothing like Elder Holland’s connection to it, nor have I made his sacrifices for it, I understand the sentiment. When I first arrived there as a student in 2009–literally minutes into my arrival—I was crying in the director’s office because somewhere in transit, my camera had disappeared. He asked if I needed a moment to catch my breath and motioned to the balcony where I could do so. I stepped outside onto those stunning stone tiers that give the center such a unique look and could barely catch my breath before it was taken away again.
The sun was setting, casting its warm light across the rooftops and glinting off of the gold curve of the Dome of the Rock. The textures and the minarets and the Jerusalem limestone that spoke of something ancient and thrilling and sacred all at once, filled my soul in an instant. The Jerusalem Center balconies have one of the most glorious views in all the world. Sometimes it feels like the city must be a dream, but then I return and it’s even better than I remembered.
But I had no idea of the obstacles, challenges and ultimate miracles it took for the center to be there to allow me to have that moment.
“I do not use the word ‘miracle’ lightly,” Elder Holland shared. “I am in a calling and I’m in a quorum that does not use the word lightly, but knows what it means, and knows the significance of when we see one.”
He said that he had listed at least “33 examples of what I consider miracles, large M or small” that had to occur just to have the property. If any one of them had gone differently or not been pursued, it would’ve blocked the whole project.
Long before the BYU Jerusalem Center existed, the first academic experience for BYU students in the Holy Land was set to take place in the summer of 1967. Anyone familiar with the history of the Middle East will recognize that as the time of the Six Days War, a brief but intense conflict that changed the face of the Middle East dramatically.
Perhaps that should’ve been a tip-off that sending students there might be a fraught proposition, though many of the students who had originally been set to leave were still able to get on a plane to go by February of 1968.
It would be a few more years before the idea of a permanent building for students was seriously pursued. “I suppose the maturing of the center started in 1972,” said Elder Holland. It was around that time that President Harold B. Lee made a visit to the Holy Land so unexpected that “not even the angels of heaven knew he was going to make that visit”. It was the first visit of a prophet to the Holy Land in 2000 years and the ensuing meetings with then mayor of Jerusalem Teddy Kollek resulted in the creation and dedication of the Orson Hyde Memorial Garden.
President Spencer W. Kimball and President N. Eldon Tanner were on site for the dedication of the garden and it was then that those invested in the student experience in the Holy Land wanted to collectively pitch the idea of a visitor’s center or university building—somewhere that visitors could understand a Latter-day Saint view of the Holy Land.
Having two members of the first presidency in town was too good a chance to pass up and the Taylors—a couple long invested in the students and the program–took the opportunity to show President Tanner a few possible properties. There was one outside Jaffa Gate, another would involve converting a hotel. Another they called the “L-shaped property” which was on Mount Scopus nearer to the memorial garden but had little more than an old hut with sheep and goats moving freely in and out of it. It was, as Elder Holland described it, “an irregular piece of property on which I don’t know what you could build.”
“It didn’t take President Tanner 30 seconds to turn his nose up at that piece of property,” said Elder Holland. “He started to walk up the hill, moved away from the infamous L-shaped property toward the northwest to a little knoll which became an absolute panorama with a magnificent view of the Old City, of Gethsemane, of the Kidron Valley, of the Temple Mount, of east and west Jerusalem.”
“There was only one minor drawback to the property: it was absolutely, categorically, unequivocally, positively, without a doubt, unavailable. President Tanner looked out over the magnificent view and said, ‘get this site’. Bob and Cathy Taylor and everybody else who was there, sputtered and stuttered and protested and said that this man did not understand—explaining again all the reasons it was not available.”
“Not a man of many words, just a penetrating glance, he said, ‘Don’t tell me your troubles. Just get the property.’ Then turned and walked away.”
Not wishing to be hyperbolic, Elder Holland said it was as if someone looking to build a place for a London study abroad came upon Buckingham Palace and said, “this is nice, get this site.” And that was only a slight exaggeration. There were political issues, religious conflicts, existing archeological significance, legal ramifications. It seemed an impossible task. The 33 miracles previously mentioned seemed a bare minimum to bring this monumental undertaking to pass.
“Dirt started to fly in August of 1984” Elder Holland said. “We were inconspicuous and nobody knew we were there and everybody was happy. But when that building started to go up the side of the hill, every possible opponent that you could imagine came out of the woodwork and shouted…what is that happening on Mount Scopus?”
The fierce opposition that abruptly arose led to three important and incredible experiences that Elder Holland generously shared with this 30th anniversary audience of former students, faculty, family and friends.
The first was that, through the insistence of an ultra-orthodox group, it was proposed that the Church and the University be made to sign a non-proselyting agreement. Technically, Israel’s constitution guaranteed them the free exercise of religion, but there were marches and protestations and people around the Temple Mount and television coverage on every continent.
“We had to convene a special meeting of the general authorities in Salt Lake on July 31, 1985.” Elder Holland told us, “Technically still one day left in the legal fiction that is called the general authorities vacation period.”
“Could we, would we, should we, sign an undertaking not to proselyte? It was a long conversation. We had never signed such an undertaking. There were places we didn’t proselyte, but we’d never signed anything.”
There was continuous prayer and discussion and finally one general authority (who Elder Holland did not name) stood up and said, “Brethren, this is Jerusalem. This is the land of prophets and apostles and the Son of the Living God. Who knows when we will ever have another chance to get property in such a contentious land. Furthermore, we’ve had to face these kinds of dilemmas before.”
There were whispers and exchanged looks at that; no one seemed to remember facing this before.
Then the general authority quoted from Mormon 1:16-17 and Mormon 3:
I did endeavor to preach unto this people, but my mouth was shut…because of the hardness of their hearts…I did stand as an idle witness to manifest unto the world the things which I saw and heard.
With some precedent for the situation, they agreed they could be content to stand as idle witnesses, although their mouths to be shut for a season. President Ezra Taft Benson signed on behalf of the Church and Jeffrey R. Holland—then president of BYU—signed on behalf of the university.
When Elder Holland touched down in Tel Aviv with documents in hand five days later, however, it was clear that this agreement would not guarantee smooth sailing from here. After being told by their pilot that everyone was to remain in their seats despite having pulled into their gate, the pilot came on again and said everyone could go except Mr. and Mrs. Jeffrey Holland.
“Two military guards came on the plane and escorted us through immigration, dispatched someone to get our luggage and then guided us through backrooms and warehouses and fork lifts and containers to a vehicle stationed right near the rear entrance to the airport.”
“Then we saw it, rounding the corner and speeding toward us were 500 yeshiva students shouting and carrying pickets and signs telling us to go home.”
JEFFREY HOLLAND, DO NOT DESECRATE OUR FAITH
J.H. WE WILL NOT SELL OUR LAND TO MORMON MISSIONARIES
JEFFREY, STOP YOUR MISSIONARY WORK BEFORE WE RETALIATE.
Perhaps just words, but only a few short months later, in November of 1985, the words became more serious as the Israeli Knesset (parliament) was in a 60-60 deadlock in their 120-seat house in their political discussions and negotiations. There was talk of war, of planes warming up in Jordan and Syria. The deadlock was so unbreakable that leadership would alternate back and forth and Shimon Peres was just taking power. He was determined to keep Israel out of war, while Ariel Sharon was itching for it.
In the heat of the controversary, a political party with only 4 seats decided to say that they were willing to reconsider their loyalties. They would give their seats to whoever would get the Mormons off of Mount Scopus and break the deadlock.
“Is someone going to take this vote? Are we going to cause a war?” Elder Holland worried as he made call after call throughout the night of November 13th. Emotionally exhausted the next morning, he decided to call President Gordon B. Hinckley—not yet Church president, but executive committee chairman on the project—and ask what to do.
“I’ll take it to the temple and we’ll get back to you,” came the reply, “we’ll pray for you.” And so, as the Brethren met in the Salt Lake Temple that day, it was an ailing President Benson who asked whether he could be the voice of the prayer. It was not his turn, nor would they have asked it of him in his deteriorating condition. But as he began to pray, he voice increased in strength and by the end “he wasn’t really praying, as much as testifying.”
President Hinckley called back and told Elder Holland that they’d done all they could do and to tell the faculty and staff in Jerusalem to keep praying and stay close to the telephone and we’ll see what happens.
What happened next was so unexpected that is was even reported in the press that “a miracle had happened” though they knew nothing of the burgeoning Jerusalem Center and its woes. It was really two miracles that happened; the first was that, against all odds and expectations, Ariel Sharon apologized for jeopardizing the government in a time of crisis. The second, just as surprising, was that Shimon Peres accepted the apology.
The Knesset was put at ease and it was finally calm in Jerusalem that night.
“I say a miracle did happen,” Elder Holland declared, “but it didn’t come from Jerusalem. And it didn’t come from London, and it didn’t come from Washington, D.C. or New York City. The miracle that night and that morning came from the fourth floor of the Salt Lake Temple, where a prophet, seer, and revelator…had prayed safety and protection onto something the Lord wanted done in that land.”
Among the lessons Elder Holland learned from the dramatic origins of the center was that the Lord can do His own work. “He’d like us to help…but I testify that in [this] case and in many others, the Lord can do his own work.” Another important lesson was the admonition that, “When you start building something in the name of the Lord, don’t ever stop.”
And 30 years since its dedication, the building has not stopped. Within the first few weeks of study there, students are brought down underneath the building’s floors to the foundations and invited to sign their names there. In that way, I am forever a part of the Jerusalem Center and it is still building me.
Its effect lingers with all who spend time there and Elder Holland concluded his remarks by saying that despite the marvelous work and a wonder that the building and what happens there is, “we have not yet realized [its] full potential.”