Baptism controversy flares anew between Jews and Mormon Church

new york | What do Gustav Mahler, Theodor Herzl and Mordecai Anielewicz share, other than their Jewish roots?

The famed Austrian composer who converted to Catholicism, the founder of Zionism and the leader of the Warsaw Ghetto all have been baptized, posthumously, by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

These three giants of Jewish history are among the estimated hundreds of thousands of dead Jews included in the Mormon Church’s genealogical files, which include some 200 million souls given posthumous baptisms as part of the church’s mission to convert all people and thus, they believe, hasten the resurrection of Jesus.

For years, Jewish officials have blasted the conversions as an insulting desecration, but the controversy is flaring anew amid charges that the Mormons have broken a 1995 promise not to add Jewish Holocaust victims to their International Genealogical Index.

Church officials insist they’ve kept to the agreement. And even among Jewish critics of the policy, there is some dispute over just what the Mormon Church originally agreed to and what it has done wrong.

But all the critics agree that, as Jewish genealogist Gary Mokotoff puts it, the Mormons should take Jews off the list.

“‘Baptism’ is the second ugliest word in the English language to a Jew,” Mokotoff said. “The first is ‘gassed.’ The third is ‘raped.'”

Ernest Michel, a former executive vice president of the UJA-Federation of New York and chairman of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, hinted this week at legal action. He broached the issue with Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.).

Michel and other Jewish officials met with Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and top officials of the Mormon Church, eventually hammering out the agreement to take Holocaust victims and other Jews off the list and not to add more.

The church agreed to remove “all known posthumously baptized Jewish Holocaust victims” who have no Mormon descendants, and eventually to remove “all deceased Jews” improperly added to the index.

But the contract is worded in such a way that the church is only responsible to strike “known” Jews — that is, those who are brought to its attention — from the list.

D. Todd Christofferson, a church official involved in the talks, said the church removed Holocaust victims listed before 1995 and has since followed the pact by instructing members not to add more.

“When the church is made aware of documented concerns, action is taken in compliance with the agreement,” he told The New York Times.