PROVO — A group of 44 Brigham Young University students arrived in Israel on Wednesday ready to become the first to study at the university's Jerusalem Center in six years.
Classes are scheduled to begin today despite opposition from some Jews and against the backdrop of a power struggle between the Palestinian movements Hamas and Fatah.
BYU is preparing to announce that it will double — to 88 — the number of students admitted to the center for both the spring and summer terms, university spokeswoman Carri Jenkins said. The center has room for 170 students.
The Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies opened in 1987 but hasn't been used for classes since BYU sent students home in November 2000 because of clashes between Israelis and Palestinians in the streets of Jerusalem.
The Jerusalem Post reported Thursday that at least one political leader is opposed to the return of students because most, if not all, are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns BYU as well as the Deseret Morning News.
Leaders at the Jerusalem Center should be monitored closely, said Meir Porush, 51, of the United Torah Judaism Party. Porush is serving his fourth term in the Knesset, or Israeli parliament.
A former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, Porush said he would follow the activities of BYU officials because, according to the Post report, "it is in the nature of Mormons to carry out missionary activities and to try and influence others."
BYU and Israeli leaders agreed before the Jerusalem Center was built that no one involved with the center would engage in missionary activities in Israel. During the application process this fall, each BYU student signed an agreement not to proselyte, resuming a practice in place before studies at the center were interrupted.
The statement in the application reads, in part:
"By signing below, you agree to not distribute, either directly or by mail, any materials pertaining to the Church or its doctrines within Israel or Palestine. You will not discuss the Church or its doctrines or answer any questions regarding the Church or its doctrines with individuals who reside in the Holy Land or who may be visiting there."
The center's executive director, Eran Hayet, told the Post, "The place is defined as neutral and this approach is expressed in the variety of people who work here, among whom you can find Jews, Arabs, Christians, Israelis, Palestinians, Americans, all welcome."
LDS proselyting was a major issue in the 1980s as Israelis debated whether they should allow the center to be built. Ultra-Orthodox Jews conducted protests at the site. Jerusalem's mayor at the time, Teddy Kollek, who died last week at 95, supported BYU and the center.
Since 2000, the center remained open to tourists and concerts. Last summer, the return of students was an on-again, off-again affair.
In June, BYU leaders announced students would return for fall semester, but weeks later they reversed course after fighting broke out between Israel and Hezbollah guerillas in Lebanon. In October, the university announced students would return for this semester.
Security concerns could limit travel, one reason only 44 spots were offered — all of the students will fit on one bus.
Tuition for the term is $7,800, more than four times the regular BYU tuition for LDS students, which is $1,810.
Classes include introductory courses in Arabic, Hebrew and Near Eastern Studies. Specialized and expanded Old and New Testament courses also are required, as are classes on ancient and modern Near Eastern history.
Jenkins said the faculty includes two professors from BYU's Department of Religious Education and four local professors — two Israeli and two Palestinian.