The BYU Jerusalem Center began construction in 1985, and almost immediately encountered opposition from the Ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, sector. I turned four in 1988, the same year that the Center was completed. I was thus too young to remember much of the controversy, but I do that the bulk of the Israeli population was indifferent, and those who were acquainted with members of the church tore up posters and fliers distributed by Haredi anti-missionary activists. They never allowed protests to be held in the neighbourhood where we had our small meeting house, either. Anti-missionary sentiment was perhaps the most obvious cause of Haredi opposition, however, even this doesn’t adequately explain why the opposition from some Haredi groups was fiercer than that from other groups. Writing in 1988, the Israeli journalist Amnon Levy pointed out other factors which came into play.
“When Rabbi Yitzhak Kaduri, the foremost Kabbalist in Israel, declares that the Admor of Ger’s illness is caused by the construction of the Mormon university on Mount Scopus, the Hasidic court [of Ger] wages an all out war against the Mormons, and the Ger representative in the Knesset is even instructed to call for a vote of no confidence in the government and to threaten to resign from the coalition. All this because the Hasidim accept the decrepit Kabbalist’s vision as meaningful, undisputed fact.”
Widely celebrated as the greatest Kabbalist of the past thirty years, Rabbi Yitzhak Kaduri was well over one hundred years old when he died in 2006. Thousands flocked to him for amulets, blessings, and prognostications for matters ranging anywhere from finding a good match, to curing childlessness, to mysterious health issues, to demonic possession, to financial woes. I personally know dozens who turned to him, and were you to recommend a good clinic or financial advisor instead, would look at you as though you were mad. By virtue of his mastery of Kabbalah and the aura of ascetic holiness surrounding him, Kaduri was considered to be in control of divine and hidden processes in both this world and the one beyond. This allowed him to diagnose the true root of any issue and prescribe the correct cure- usually a unique permutation of the divine name- which would then be written on an amulet given the supplicant. This ability was not restricted to amulets. Kaduri frequently spoke out on matters of national policy, connecting the visible manifestation to another separate, spiritual issue; the deep link between them concealed below the surface. Thus it was with the building of BYU Jersusalem. The Center, according to Kaduri, was the cause of the mysterious, debilitating illness which struck the Hasidic Rebbe of Ger in 1985.
Rabbi Simcha Bunim Alter was the fifth Rebbe (or Admor) of the Hasidic court of Ger. On the one hand he did things like institute daily study of the much neglected Talmud Yerushalmi, and fought against social ills such as smoking. On the other hand, he was extremely reactionary, and bitterly campaigned against what he saw as the twin evils of Christianity and the secular world. Politically, he achieved a lot of pull, and unusually for a Hasidic Rebbe, was very supportive of the Sephardic faction in the Haredi world. Kaduri was prominent in that marginalized faction, which helps explains why he was close to Alter. As for the Hasidim themselves, they certainly believed in an unseen world where the supernatural regularly intruded upon this, the seen world. Miracles, visions, dreams, prophecies, and curses, these were all mysterious, but very real and very present. This is why they believed Kaduri’s diagnosis, but their vehemence towards BYU is better explained by the role that Alter played in their lives. A Hasidic Rebbe is a tzaddik- a holy man- who intercedes with God on behalf of his followers, drawing down blessings upon them. He also purifies and uplifts their souls. In return they are to cleave to him, and support him materially. The tzaddik, as famously formulated, is the foundation upon which the world stands. He is literally the link between his followers and God. Alter fell mysteriously ill in 1985, becoming unable to communicate with his followers, and, indeed, barely functioning at all. This sent shockwaves throughout his court, and Kaduri’s declaration galvanized them into action against the cause of their Rebbe’s affliction. So, in the case of Ger, the motivation behind Hasidic opposition to the BYU center was as much personal as it was anti-missionary. Alter never recovered, but died in 1992. Since then, Mormons have largely faded from Hasidic memory, and one is far likelier to encounter negative sentiment stemming from LDS proxy work for the dead than from anything to do with Alter or Kaduri.
Amnon Levy, "The Ultra-Orthodox," (Heb.), Keter Publishing House, Jerusalem, Ltd., 1988, p. 22.