Reaching the Nations

Israel

By David Stewart and Matt Martinich

Return to Table of Contents

Geography

Area: 22,072 square km.  Located in the Middle East, Israel borders Jordan, Egypt, the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, the Red Sea, and the Mediterranean Sea.  Part of a rift system that stretches from East Africa to Syria, the Jordan Rift Valley is the dominant geographic feature and holds the Jordan River, the fresh-water Sea of Galilee, and the salty Dead Sea.  Highlands occupy central areas whereas plains cover coastal areas.  The Negev Desert comprises the southern portion of Israel where hot, dry climatic conditions occur; temperate climate prevails elsewhere.  Sandstorms, droughts, and earthquakes are natural hazards.  Environmental issues include water scarcity, lack of arable land, desertification, and pollution.  Israel is divided into six administrative districts.

Population: 7,353,985 (July 2010)       

Annual Growth Rate: 1.628% (2010)

Fertility Rate: 2.72 children born per woman (2010)

Life Expectancy: 78.7 male, 83.12 female (2010)

Peoples

Jewish: 76.4%

non-Jewish: 23.6%

67.1% of the Jewish population was born in Israel whereas 22.6% were born in Europe or the United States, 5.9% in Africa, and 4.2% in Asia.  Arabs constitute the bulk of the non-Jewish population.  In 2009, the government issued approximately 90,000 foreign work permits and estimated that there were 118,000 illegal foreign workers in Israel.[1]  Arabs are concentrated in northern Israel and in some West Bank border regions.

Languages: Hebrew (81%), Arabic dialects (15%), other (4%).  Hebrew is the official language and only language with over one million speakers (6.0 million).  Commonly spoken languages among Jewish immigrants include Arabic dialects, Russian,Yiddish, Romanian, Polish, Ladino (Judeo-Spanish), and English.  

Literacy: 97.1% (2004)

History

Known as the "Promised Land" of the Jewish people, Israel numbers among the oldest inhabited nations in the known world.  The Kingdom of Israel was established likely around the eleventh century before Christ and divided into two kingdoms (Judah and Israel).  The Assyrians and later Babylonians invaded the region, with the later taking captive the remaining Jews to Mesopotamia until their return decades later.  Israel was later ruled by the Persians, Greeks, and Romans.  Christianity began in Israel in the first century A.D and the majority of Christ's ministry occurred in present-day Israel.  The Romans subdued Jewish revolts in the first century B.C. and ultimately relocated most of the Jewish population elsewhere in the Roman World, leading to the Diaspora of Jewish peoples throughout North Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia.  The Byzantines and later the Ottomans controlled Israel.  Efforts to establish a Jewish state in Palestine lasted for half a century before coming to fruition in 1948.  In 1917, the Balfour Declaration secured British government assistance in the creation of Jewish state and Jewish immigration accelerated despite increasing violence between Jewish and Arab communities.  Surrounding Arab states invaded Israel immediately after independence was declared but once armistice agreements were signed with Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, Israel gained 50% more territory in 1949.  The Six Days War in 1967 was triggered by mounting tension between Israel and Egypt over the future status of the Sinai Peninsula and Israel's right to exist as a nation-state in the Arab Middle East.  During the conflict, Israel gained control of the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights.  Conflict persisted throughout much of the 1970s over cease-fire lines and a formal peace treaty between Israel and Egypt was not reached until 1979.  Border conflicts and skirmishes occurred along the Lebanese border during the 1970s and 1980s.  Israel has retained occupation of the Palestinian-populated West Bank and Gaza Strip and granted greater self-rule and autocratic government rights in 1994.  In the 2000s, the international community comprised of the United States, European Union, the United Nations, and Russia have collaborated with Israeli and Palestinian forces for the establishment of a democratic Palestinian state that can peacefully coexist with Israel, but these efforts have met consistent frustration and delay due to ongoing hostilities, the terrorist activities of Hamas, Hezbollah, and other groups, and difficult negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and  the Israeli government.  Israel has constructed several walls and barriers to restrict the movement of Palestinians in an effort to increase security and protect the safety of Israeli citizens.  Hezbollah terrorist activities culminated in war with Lebanon in 2006 that severely crippled Lebanon.  The political destiny of Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip remains undetermined.

Culture 

Both Jewish and non-Jewish cultures brought by Jews immigrating from around the world over the past century has resulted in a diverse and dynamic Israeli culture that thrives today.  The indigenous Arab population that predated the modern arrival of Jewish settlers to the region has continued to influence architecture, society, music, and cuisine.  Holy sites in the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish traditions dot the landscape such as the Western Wall, the Temple Mount, the Cave of the Patriarchs, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Dome of the Rock, Joseph's tomb, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque.  The revival of the Hebrew language began in the nineteenth century and has been a success as there are now several million first language speakers of Hebrew and most the population speaks Hebrew fluently.  As a result of superimposing the Hebrew language onto the traditional Arabic-speaking region, many place names were changed or have multiple names today.  Most signs are written in Hebrew, Arabic, and English.  Societal tensions between differing Jewish sects, Arab Muslims, and Christians remain high.  Israel is known for its music, dance, theater, cinema, museums, and athletics.  Cigarette consumption rates are higher than the worldwide average whereas alcohol consumption rates are low.

Economy

GDP per capita: $29,500 (2010) [63.6% of US]

Human Development Index: 0.872

Corruption Index: 6.1

Israel possesses an advanced market economy that has diversified and developed over the past several decades despite limited natural resources and regional instability.  Strong political and economic ties with the United States have facilitated growth.  Exports account for 25% of the GDP.  Timber, potash, copper, natural gas, phosphate, magnesium bromide, clay, and sand are natural resources.  Services employ 82% of the population and generate 65% of the GDP whereas industry employs 16% of the labor force and generates 33% of the GDP.  High-technology products, wood products, mining and minerals, food processing, tobacco, cement, construction, metal products, diamond cutting, and textiles are the major industries.  Agriculture accounts for less than three percent of the work force and GDP.  Common crops include fruits, vegetables, and cotton.  Beef, poultry, and dairy products are agricultural goods.  The United States is the primary trade partner. 

Corruption is perceived as less prevalent than in most nations in the region and the enforcement local laws and government policies is generally consistent.  Israel is a money-laundering center in the region and illegal drugs are trafficked into the country from neighboring Lebanon and Syria.  Domestic illicit drug use is a concern.

Faiths

Jewish: 75.5%

Muslim: 16.8%

Christian: 2.1%

Druze: 1.7%

other: 3.9%

Christians

Denominations  Members  Congregations

Catholic  100,000

Messianic Jews  10,000

Jehovah's Witnesses  1,332  20

Seventh-Day Adventists  898  13

Latter-Day Saints  234  4

Religion

Three-quarters of the Israeli population is Jewish, of which 44% is non-religious or secular, 39% is traditionally religious/non-religious, 10% is Orthodox, and 7% is ultra-Orthodox.  Additional Jewish sects include Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Jews.  Approximately 30% of the Jewish population were born abroad.  Arab Sunni Muslims account for most of the non-Jewish population.  Christians and Druze account for a tiny minority, together accounting for fewer than 5% of the population.  There are approximately 10,000 Messianic Jews.  There is a high degree of geographic segregation among religious communities.[2] 

Religious Freedom

Persecution Index:

The Israeli Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty protects religious freedom which is generally upheld by the government.  However the government discriminates against non-Orthodox Jewish sects and non-Jews.  Orthodox Jews receive ample government funding and many government practices and laws are aligned to the Orthodox tradition resulting in discrimination and intolerance towards religious minorities.  Religious groups recognized by the British prior to independence have been consistently referred to as religious communities by the Israeli government.  Only three additional groups have been granted religious community status since 1948: The Druze, the Evangelical Episcopal Church, and the Baha'i Faith.  Many large Protestant groups are not recognized by the government but have operated for many years, such as Baptists, the Assemblies of God, and Lutherans.  Obtaining visas for religious representatives has been challenging for recognized and unrecognized religious groups alike.  Any religious group may legally proselyte without restrictions among the entire population, but there have been counter-proselytism efforts by the government to discourage missionary activity.  Major Jewish holidays are recognized by the government and all workers have the right to determine their respective weekend day of worship in which they may rest for 36 consecutive hours.  Gender segregation on public buses and other places frequently occurs in areas with ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities.  Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad have periodically launched rocket and mortar attacks on Israelis from Palestinian-controlled areas.  Interethnic and inter-religious tensions between Muslim Arabs, differing Jewish sects, and Christians continue to be strained.  Messianic Jews, Jehovah's Witnesses, and evangelical Christians report the greatest societal abuse of religious freedom as they are frequently targeted by anti-missionary Jewish groups such as Yad L'Achim and Lev L'Achim.[3]  

Largest Cities

Urban: 92%

Jerusalem, Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Haifa, Rishon LeZiyyon, Petah Tiqwa, Ashdod, Beer Sheva, Holon, Netanya, Bene Beraq, Ramat Gan, Bat Yam, Rehovot, Ashqelon.

Cities listed in bold have no LDS congregations.

Two of the 14 cities with over 100,000 inhabitants have an LDS congregation.  44% of the national population resides in the 14 largest cities.

LDS History

LDS apostle Elder Orson Hyde traveled to Palestine and dedicated the Holy Land on October 24th, 1841 for the gathering of the Jews.[4]  Organized first to service Armenians in the Near East, the Palestine/Syrian Mission operated from 1933-1939 and 1947-1951.  One of the mission presidents in the 1930s was Armenian but the mission closed and the branches were discontinued during World War II.  The Church in Israel was administered from Switzerland in the early 1970s.[5]  Several senior missionary couples were called to serve as special representatives for the Church in the 1970s.  At the time branches operated in Galilee, Jerusalem, Haifa, and Tel Aviv.  In the early 1990s, the Galilee Branch nearly closed as there were no more than three active members.  Special representative missionaries were removed in 1985 due to conflict regarding the building of the Brigham Young University Jerusalem Center in Jerusalem.  The center is 120,000 square feet, is located on southern Mount Scopus, and can house 175 students.[6]  A 1986 deal with the Knesset permitted the LDS Church to build its Jerusalem Center in exchange for the Church promising to refrain from any proselytism activity.[7]  In late 1992 and early 1993, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir performed in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Haifa.  Nearly 3,000 attended the performance in Tel Aviv and the choir received favorable reviews.[8]  Senior missionary couples have been assigned to the Jerusalem Center and in the 2000s were also called to work in the Galilee area.  The Church has a 99-year lease for the land on which the Jerusalem Center stands.[9]  Israel has been assigned to the Middle East/Africa North Area since 2008.

Membership Growth

LDS Membership: 234 (2009)

Although there are some native Latter-day Saints, non-Israeli citizens appear to constitute the bulk of LDS membership in Israel.  Some members are LDS converts from the former Soviet Union.  In 2003, there were 156 Latter-day Saints.  Membership increased to 185 in 2004, 219 in 2006, and reached a high of 246 in 2007.  Membership slightly declined in the late 2000s to 234 in 2009.

Congregational Growth

Wards: 0 Branches: 4

The Jerusalem Branch was organized in the early 1970s followed by the Galilee Branch in 1976.  The Israel District was organized in 1980.  In the early 2000s, there were two branches operating in Galilee and Jerusalem.  The number of branches increased to three in 2006 and four in 2007 as a result of the creation of the Tel Aviv and Middle East/Africa North Area Branches, both of which pertain to the Israel District.

Activity and Retention

45 attended the dedication of the Galilee Branch meetinghouse in Tiberias in 2007.[10]  The average number of members per congregation declined from 78 in 2003 to 59 in 2009.  In 2007, approximately 25 of the 60 members in the Galilee Branch were active.[11]  In early 2011, the Jerusalem Branch had few active members.  Nationwide active membership is estimated at 75, or 30% of total membership. 

Language Materials

Languages with LDS Scripture: Arabic, Russian , Romanian, Polish, English

All LDS scriptures and most church materials are translated into Arabic, Russian, Romanian, and Polish.  Hebrew translations of LDS materials are limited to the sacrament prayers.[12]  The Liahona magazine has twelve issues a year in Russian and four in Romanian and Polish. 

Meetinghouses

In 2007, there were two LDS facilities in Israel, one being the BYU Jerusalem for Near Eastern Studies and the other being the Galilee Branch meetinghouse.  The Galilee Branch meetinghouse is a renovated villa.[13]

Health and Safety

Christian missionary groups are often physically intimated and harassed by some radical Jewish groups.  Terrorist attacks pose a safety risk. 

Humanitarian and Development Work

In recent years, the Church has donated x-ray equipment for dental workers, a computer system for the disabled, equipment for teaching employment skills, supplies for mothers and newborns, and blankets for the elderly.  Additional development work has included providing health information to Palestinian women and providing educational materials for children.[14]

 

Opportunities, Challenges and Prospects

Religious Freedom

Latter-day Saints are permitted to assemble and worship, but face many restrictions regarding proselytism, the baptism of converts and LDS children, and the translation and printing of Hebrew-language LDS materials.  There are no full-time proselytizing LDS missionaries and local members are not permitted to conduct missionary work.  Many of these restrictions were imposed by the LDS Church itself to safeguard against misunderstandings from the Jewish community and Israeli government and to secure the construction and operation of the BYU Jerusalem Center.  Overall Latter-day Saints have positive relations with the government as the Church has honored agreements.  The Church has experienced some friction with Jewish communities internationally regarding the proxy baptism of deceased Jews in LDS temples, but in recent years these tensions have been diffused by LDS leaders enforcing a policy that Latter-day Saints are to submit proxy temple ordinance work only for their ancestors.  Those desiring baptism in the LDS Church in Israel must travel to a nation in which the Church permits baptisms to receive this ordinance.  Foreign service missionaries appear to serve regularly.

Cultural Issues

Instable societal conditions, wars, and intolerance for Christian proselytism have contributed to the lack of LDS missionary activity in Israel for decades.  Recognizing the persisting societal and governmental challenges for prospective missionary work likely contributed to the decision of LDS leaders to promise to Israeli government officials that no proselytism would occur in the country if the building of the BYU Jerusalem Center was permitted.  The reception of Christian missionaries (and LDS missionaries before the proselytism ban) has been low among Jews and Muslims and threats of violence or persecution have been widespread to those accused of proselytism.  Conflict in the region has intensified ethnic and religious ties among Jews and Muslims, making these groups unreceptive to missionary activity.  Poor Christian-Jewish relations and the persecution of Jews for centuries has made Jews resistant and sensitive to perceived threats of Christian proselytism.  Strong ethno-religious ties further challenge Jews and Muslims to investigate and join the LDS Church as involvement in the Church may result in ostracism from family and the community.  In accordance with the traditional Jewish Sabbath, LDS congregations worship on Saturday.

National Outreach

Proselytism bans among missionaries and members alike render the entire population unreached by the LDS Church.  16% of the national population resides in cities with established LDS congregations.  Coastal areas in central Israel are the most densely populated.  The current LDS Church presence is primary due to the immigration of Latter-day Saints from around the world to Israel and the special interest of LDS leaders in the historical religious significance of Israel. 

Indigenous Christian communities may offer the greatest prospects for expanding national outreach in Israel in the event that proselytism bans are lifted due to similarities in doctrine and generally less opposition toward foreign missionary groups.  The increasing number of foreign workers from traditionally-Christian nations are culturally more reachable by the Church and may also improve prospects for widening national outreach. 

Israelis do not appear to have any restrictions preventing access to LDS internet websites.  The Church's official websites at lds.org, mormon.org, and a wide range language materials available online on both these sites offer opportunities for Israelis to learn about the Church online.  The Church's online meetinghouse locator provides telephone contact information but no addresses or meetinghouse locations.  There are no translations of Hebrew LDS materials online. 

Member Activity and Convert Retention

As nearly the entire Latter-day Saint population joined the Church prior to their arrival in Israel, member activity and convert retention rates reflect the rates experienced in members' countries of origin.  Member activity rates may be lowest for Russian and Spanish-speaking immigrants as most countries in which these languages are spoken have relatively low LDS convert retention and member activity rates.  North American members appear to have the highest member activity rates.  Israeli Latter-day Saint member activity rates appear low to moderate.  Distance from LDS meetinghouses, a small number of active members, and societal intolerance for non-traditional Christian groups have also likely contributed to low member activity rates.  Emphasis from local leaders on institute and seminary attendance can help ameliorate some of these issues and strengthen doctrinal understanding and testimony building. 

Ethnic Issues and Integration

The LDS Church in Israel is unique regarding the diverse demographic composition of its tiny membership as congregations do not appear to have any ethnic majority.  Members report that the Latter-day Saints in Israel consist of Americans, Spanish-speakers, Russians, ethnic Jews, Arabs, Brazilians, and others.  There are a large number of immigrant or migrant worker Filipino Latter-day Saints in congregations in Jerusalem and Galilee.[15]

Language Issues

In 2007, LDS services in the Galilee Branch were conducted and translated into English, Hebrew, Spanish, and Russian[16] and in English, Russian, and Spanish in Tel Aviv.    There are no Hebrew translations of LDS scriptures or materials.  The Church has not granted permission for the translation of LDS scriptures and materials into Hebrew.  Hebrew-speaking Latter-day Saints must use other language materials.

Missionary Service

Very few if any local members have served full-time missions from Israel.  Prospects may improve for the children of the few Israeli Latter-day Saint families to serve missions over the medium-term.

Leadership

Expatriate and immigrant members appear to staff most, if not all, church leadership positions in Israel.  There are only a handful of Israeli members that are qualified to lead congregations due to language barriers and the small size of church membership.  Leadership has demonstrated some sustainability as indicated by the continuous operation of the Israel District and two of its branches over the past three decades. 

Temple

Israel is assigned to the Bern Switzerland Temple district.  Organized temple trips likely occur as a district or in conjunction with the Amman Jordan District or Manama Bahrain Stake.  Prospects for a closer small temple in the United Arab Emirates may materialize for the sparse, remote Latter-day Saint population in the region over the medium term.

Comparative Growth

The only Jewish-majority nation, Israel shares many similarities with Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon regarding the size and status of the LDS Church as these are the only Middle Eastern nations which have had multiple Latter-day Saint native converts in recent years.  However, only Jordan and Lebanon appear to have a well established community of native members whereas in Israel local members are few in number and primary consist of immigrants.  Palestine has a few Arab LDS families in Bethlehem.  Only Israel and Jordan have church institutions.  Arab Gulf states like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have larger LDS Church memberships due to the large expatriate presence.

Missionary-minded Christian groups share special interest in growing their denominations in Israel but success appears primarily limited to immigrant groups.  Few Jews and Muslims have become Christians.  Messianic Jews appear among the most successful largely due to their ability to culturally tailor a missionary approach to those of the Jewish faith and a permanent community of converts that is self sustaining.  Concerns over persecution and violence in the region have limited missionary outreach for most Christian groups. 

Future Prospects

The unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict, poor diplomatic relations with neighboring Arab states, government agreements forbidding LDS proselytism, no missionary approaches specially tailored to Jews, and lack of Israeli Latter-day Saints create an unfavorable outlook for church growth for the foreseeable future.  Maintaining current LDS congregations, immigration of LDS converts, and the growing foreign worker population may sustain the church infrastructure in Israel until conditions become more favorable for growth.  The development of Jewish-directed LDS missionary approaches in areas with sizeable Jewish minorities and translation of LDS materials into Hebrew may improve the prospects of future missionary activity in Israel if permitted one day. 


[1]  "Israel and the Occupied Territories," International Religious Freedom Report 2010, 17 November 2010.  http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2010/148825.htm

[2]  "Israel and the Occupied Territories," International Religious Freedom Report 2010, 17 November 2010.  http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2010/148825.htm

[3] "Israel and the Occupied Territories," International Religious Freedom Report 2010, 17 November 2010.  http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2010/148825.htm

[4]  "Historical chronology of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," 8 February 2010.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/58765/Historical-chronology-of-The-Church-of-Jesus-Christ-of-Latter-day-Saints.html

[5]  "The Church in Europe", Ensign, Aug. 1973, 16-35

[6]  Gaunt, LaRene.  "One Voice", Ensign, Apr. 1993, 35

[7]  "Israel and the Occupied Territories," International Religious Freedom Report 2010, 17 November 2010.  http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2010/148825.htm

[8]  Avant, Gerry.  "Music of Tabernacle Choir 'opens the gates of Heaven'," LDS Church News, 9 January 1993.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/23227/Music-of-Tabernacle-Choir-opens-the-gates-of-Heaven.html

[9]  "Dedication of the Galilee Branch House," jerusalem.nielsonpi.com, retrieved 17 January 2011.  http://jerusalem.nielsonpi.com/galileebranch.pdf

[10]  "Galilee Branch facility dedicated," LDS Church News, 31 March 2007.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/50331/Galilee-Branch-facility-dedicated.html

[11]  "Dedication of the Galilee Branch House," jerusalem.nielsonpi.com, retrieved 17 January 2011.  http://jerusalem.nielsonpi.com/galileebranch.pdf

[12]  "Dedication of the Galilee Branch House," jerusalem.nielsonpi.com, retrieved 17 January 2011.  http://jerusalem.nielsonpi.com/galileebranch.pdf

[13]  "Galilee Branch facility dedicated," LDS Church News, 31 March 2007.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/50331/Galilee-Branch-facility-dedicated.html

[14]  "Projects - Israel," Humanitarian Activities Worldwide, retrieved 17 January 2011.  http://www.providentliving.org/project/0,13501,4607-1-2008-253,00.html

[15]  "Galilee Branch facility dedicated," LDS Church News, 31 March 2007.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/50331/Galilee-Branch-facility-dedicated.html

[16]  "Galilee Branch facility dedicated," LDS Church News, 31 March 2007.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/50331/Galilee-Branch-facility-dedicated.html