Plans to build a center for students were announced by LDS Church President Spencer W. Kimball in 1979. By 1984, the church had obtained a 49-year lease on the land and had begun construction. The center's prominent position on the Jerusalem skyline quickly brought it notice by the religious conservatives, or Haredim, of Israel. Protests and opposition to the building of the center springing from the Haredim made the issue of building the center a national and even international issue. After several investigative committees of Israel's Knesset reviewed and debated the issue, Israeli officials decided to allow the center's construction to continue in 1986. The center opened to students in May 1988 and was dedicated by Howard W. Hunter on May 16, 1989. It did not admit students from 2001 to 2006 due to security issues during the Second Intifada but continued to provide tours for visitors and weekly concerts.
On October 24, 1979, church President Spencer W. Kimball visited Jerusalem to dedicate the Orson Hyde Memorial Gardens, located on the Mount of Olives. The church had donated money to beautify the Jerusalem area, and officials of the Jerusalem government were present at the occasion. It was at this dedication that President Kimball announced the church's intent to build a center for BYU students in the city. Negotiations between the church and the Israeli government stretched from 1980-1984. The land the church wanted for the center, located on the southwestern side of Mount Scopus, had been acquired by Israel during the Six Day War of 1967 and could not be sold under Israeli law. The church decided obtain a lease on the land instead. Leasing the land also prevented the politically controversial problem of the church owning a piece of Jerusalem land. Israeli officials saw the building of the center on the land as a way of solidifying control over land whose ownership was ambiguous under international law. By August 1984, the church had the land on a 49-year lease, building permits had been obtained, and construction on the building began.
The 1980s saw many other Christian groups vying for representation and space in the city. These groups constantly faced opposition from a strong political minority of Orthodox Jews living in the city. Neither major political party in Israel (the Likud and Labor Parties) could achieve a majority vote in the Knesset without support from the more religious parties. Religious parties used this situation to pass laws in favor of Jewish Orthodoxy in exchange for their support on other issues. At the time the conservative Jews which make up the "religious right" in Israel, or the Haredim, constituted 27% of the population of Jerusalem, and was decidedly against the building of the BYU Jerusalem Center or any other similar Christian structure. Larger parties faced loss of a majority if they stood opposite on this issue. Many Israeli officials, however, such as the Mayor of Jerusalem at the time, Teddy Kollek, along with others in attendance at the Orson Hyde Garden dedication, supported the center because of what the church had done for the city. Kollek specifically stated that "the Mormon church's presence in Jerusalem can do a great deal of work in providing the bridge of understanding between the Arab and Jews...because its members look with sympathy and understanding at both sides. The land on which the center was built was then still considered Arab land by many, and many officials saw that its lease would add an image of religious tolerance to their government and increase Israeli control of the land.
Because of its prominent location in the Jerusalem skyline, construction was quickly noticed, and this sparked a major controversy in Israel and in the Jewish world as a whole beginning in 1985. The Haredim led the opposition, their main concern being that the building would be used not as a school, but as a center for Mormon proselyting efforts in Jerusalem. The Haredim warned of a "spiritual holocaust". The LDS Church, they argued, had no local presence in the population of the Jerusalem area and no historical connections to the land. The group spread warnings through letters, newspapers, and television that Mormon missionaries would convert Jews throughout the city, saying that:
Warnings in the media led to street protests and demonstrations. Orthodox Jews marched on City Hall and to the construction site in 1986. Some even gathered at the Wailing Wall in a public prayer of mourning because of the center. They also gathered at the hotel at which the BYU President was staying at one point, carrying signs saying: "Conversion is Murder!" and "Mormons, stop your mission now". Death threats were sent to the Director of the center and to Mayor Kolleck, and some threatened to bomb the center. (A Baptist church, the first in Jerusalem, had actually been bombed only a few years earlier in 1982.) Despite many threats, however, at no point did Haredim protests become physically violent. In late 1985, the Haredim motioned for a no-confidence vote against the leading Labor Party. Prime Minister Shimon Peres organized a committee of eight, four for the center and four against, to debate the issue and come up with a solution either for or against the center's presence. Another committee was formed to look into the allegation that the money the church had put into Jerusalem was a bribe to gain Mayor Kolleck's support for the center (the committee found the church "Not Guilty"). A subcommittee of the Knesset requested that the LDS Church issue a formal promise not to proselytize Jews. Some Israelis considered this discriminatory, as no other Christian church had been asked to do this in Jerusalem. Church leaders, however, agreed to comply and sent a formally signed statement soon after. Some Jews in the area were still uneasy and doubted the church's intent, believing that religious belief among Mormons would supersede adherence to the law. One protestor stated that "converting the sons of Judah, us, is a basic article of their faith. . . . They regard themselves as sons of Joseph and believe there will be no Second Coming for as long as we and they do not fuse.
In addition to the promise not to proselyte, BYU began a public relations campaign to inform the public of their intentions for the center as a school and a gathering place for those already of the LDS faith. Ads were purchased in local newspapers, magazines, and on television, and the center had personnel appear on radio talk shows. Government officials in favor of the center also began to speak out, saying that Jerusalem should deny no one a place to worship, Jew, Muslim, or Christian. The Minister for Economic Planning, Gad Yaakobi said that the debate had "already caused considerable damage to Israel", and Former Foreign Minister Abba Eban stated that the "free exercise of conscience and dissent in a democratic society" was at stake. The center also received support in the U.S., as former President Gerald Ford spoke for the center, as well the United Jewish Council of Utah, who wrote a letter stating that "For over one hundred years, the Jewish and LDS communities have coexisted in the Salt Lake Valley in a spirit of true friendship and harmony. It has been our experience that when the leaders of the LDS Church make a commitment of policy, it is a commitment which can be relied upon. The stated commitment of Brigham Young University not to violate the laws of the state of Israel, or its own commitment regarding proselytizing in the state of Israel through the Jerusalem-based Brigham Young facility, is a commitment which we sincerely believe will be honored." The U.S. government also became an intermediary for BYU as 154 members of Congress issued a letter to the Knesset in support of the BYU Jerusalem Center. In 1986, the Knesset approved the completion of the center.
The center was dedicated on May 16, 1989 by Howard W. Hunter, then-President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. The dedication ceremony was small, as the church decided not to announce it until a month later. The church did not want a large ceremony to cause concern among those in opposition to the center, who may have seen it as a religious gathering. Thomas S. Monson, then a second counselor in the First Presidency of the LDS Church, and Boyd K. Packer, another member of the church's Quorum of the Twelve, were among those in attendance, as well as BYU President Jeffrey R. Holland. Robert C. Taylor, director of the BYU Travel Study program was in attendance and stated in an interview with the The Daily Universe that the dedication of the building was centered solely on the educational aspect of the school, as well as for "whatever purposes [the Lord] has in store" in the future. Taylor stated that the church would respect the laws of the land and their commitment not to proselyte.
The center's design reflects the architecture of the Near East. It is constructed of hand-carved Jerusalem limestone, according to local custom. The use of arches and domes closely models other building of Jerusalem and the gardens throughout the center contain many trees and other plants named in the Bible. The interior contains the arches and cupolas typical of the Near East, and large, windowed pavilions provide wide views of Jerusalem.
Over 400 micropiles were drilled into the Mount to secure the foundation in case of an earthquake. Latter-day Saints expect an earthquake to happen at the Second Coming of Christ to Jerusalem. The building also contains, in adherence to Israeli law, bomb shelters capable of holding all faculty, staff, and students in case of emergency.
The center provides a curriculum that focuses on Old and New Testament, ancient and modern Near Eastern studies, and language (Hebrew and Arabic). Classroom study is built around field trips that cover the Holy Land, and the program is open only to qualifying full-time undergraduate students at either BYU, BYU-Idaho, or BYU-Hawaii.
The center teaches classes in four-month semesters occurring three times per year. Each semester costs $8,925. Students are required to take a small orientation course online before entering the center and are interviewed individually. Application requirements state that student must have attended at least two semesters (including the semester immediately preceding the trip abroad) at BYU, BYU-Hawaii, or BYU-Idaho, have a GPA of at least 2.5, and sign an agreement not to proselyte. Married students are not allowed to attend.
The center also strives to meet the goals of the BYU Mission statement, "to assist individuals in their quest for perfection and eternal life" as well as in their educational endeavors. The center aims to give students not only an educational experience by experiencing cultures and languages firsthand, but a spiritual experience by taking them to the sites of biblical events and encouraging them to live their lives in a Christian way.