FREEMASONRY IN ISRAEL

WHERE ARABS AND JEWS EMBRACE AS BROTHERS

Leon Zeldis

Honorary Assistant Grand Master, Grand Lodge of the State of Israel

Past Sovereign Grand Commander, Supreme Council 33° AASR of Israel

 

          Reading newspapers and watching the evening news, one can get the idea that in Israel we are living in a constant state of war, experiencing frequent terrorist acts, and are divided by deep-seated, ancient hatred between the religious and national communities that share our land, Arabs and Jews.

          Tennyson once said, that a complete lie may be met and fought with outright, but a lie which is partly a truth, is harder to fight.

          I can bring you some good news. What I stated in my opening paragraph is only partly true, but there is another truth, more important, because it gives hope for the future. The truth is that there are Arabs and Jews who live in peace, who are ready to learn about the others, to discard old stereotypes, and to develop a community of civil understanding.

          To start with, bear in mind that in Israel live over a million and a half Arab citizens, most of them Moslems, who enjoy all the rights of a free and democratic society.

          However, perhaps the place where this truth of peaceful coexistence finds its best expression, where it is most evident, most genuine, is within the Masonic Lodges.

          The Grand Lodge of Israel has some 70 active lodges, with about 2000 members. Ours is a country of immigrants, and this is reflected in the fact that we have lodges working in eight different languages. Apart from Hebrew and Arabic, which are the official languages of Israel, we have lodges working in English, Spanish, French, German, Russian, Rumanian and Turkish.

          Our Grand Lodge Officers include three bearers of the Volume of the Sacred Law: one for the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible, another for the Christian Bible and the third the Koran. These three volumes are placed on the altar of the Grand Lodge and on those of many individual lodges.

          The majority of Israeli lodges work in Hebrew, but five lodges work in Arabic, two of them in the holy city of Nazareth. And we have numerous Arab brethren who are members of Hebrew-speaking lodges.

          This tradition of making the Masonic lodge a place of union, of promoting understanding and tolerance, started with the very beginnings of Speculative Freemasonry, in fact, this is one of the pillars of Freemasonry.

          The first recorded Masonic ceremony in the Holy Land was organized by an American, Robert Morris, Past Grand Master of Kentucky, who had come to the Near East looking for Masonic antiquities to prove the ancient origins of our Craft. Morris did not find any such proof, but he did meet a few Masons then living in Jaffa and Jerusalem, and these, joined by some Masons among visiting British naval officers, were assembled by Morris and constituted into the group which he grandly named "Reclamation Lodge of Jerusalem", and these, on Wednesday, May 13, 1868, held a meeting in King Solomon's Quarries, a deep cave under the old city of Jerusalem.

          The list of those taking part in the ceremony included the Turkish Governor of Jaffa, Nureddin Effendi and the British Officer Charles Warren, who later became the firt Worshipful Master of Quatuor Coronati Lodge of research. Even then, at this symbolic birth of Freemasonry in the Holy Land, we find Christians of various denominations and a Moslem joining hands under the aegis of Freemasonry.

          The first real lodge to be established in the Holy Land was also the work of Rob Morris, securing a Charter from the Grand Lodge of Canada in the Province of Ontario, for a lodge to work "in Jerusalem and surroundings". The charter was issued on February 17, 1873 and Royal Solomon Mother Lodge N° 293 was formally consecrated on May 7.

          The signers of the petition for this lodge included Robert Morris, John Sheville, Rolla Floyd, Richard Beardsley, Charles Netter, and Peter Bergheim.

          Morris, Sheville, Floyd, Beardsley and Bergheim were Christians, while Netter was a Jew.

          Charles Netter (1826-1882) had been one of the founders in 1860 of the Alliance Israelite Universelle, the French society formed to defend the rights of Jews and to promote Jewish education in the Middle East.

Netter also founded in 1870 the first agricultural school in Palestine, Mikve Israel, which formed the basis for the development of agriculture in the Holy Land.

          The first candidate to petition the lodge – at its very first meeting - was Moses Hornstein, a Jew from Odessa. Anxious to increase their number, the lodge appointed a Committee of three and a meeting was held the next day to ballot and initiate Hornstein. The following day the new Brother was passed to Fellow Craft and one day later he was raised to the Sublime Degree of Master Mason. At that same meeting the lodge officers were elected, and Hornstein was appointed Junior Deacon.

          A Christian Arab of Lebanese origin, Alexander Howard, was another member of the lodge. Howard, whose real name was Iskander Awad, was a colorful figure whose work as local agent for Thomas Cook (who started at the time his tours of the Middle East) gave him status – and income – that enabled him to become an influential businessman in Ottoman Palestine. He owned hotels in Jaffa and Jerusalem.

          Howard was also the first to built houses beyond the walls of the old city of Jaffa. In fact, a whole street block was named after him, and his own home became a Masonic Temple. The building stands to this day, and the marble frieze over the entrance, with the motto "Shalom to Israel" in Hebrew. The good relations Howard maintained with the local Jewish community are reflected in the fact that his home also served as a meeting place for the waves of Jewish immigrants who came to the Holy Land at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th. Around 1890 it became the headquarters of the Central Committee of the Hovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion), a pioneer Zionist movement of Russian Jews that promoted settlement in Palestine.

          Another Jewish brother I shall mention is Joseph Amzalak. He belonged to a family of wealthy Sephardic Jews, who in their wanderings after the expulsion from Spain in 1492 eventually settled in Morocco during the 16th to 18th centuries, then moved to Gibraltar. Joseph was born in the British colony. By 1824 he had taken up residence in Palestine. He was reported to be the wealthiest Jew in Jerusalem and he built one of the most beautiful houses in the Old City, near the Jaffa gate.

          Royal Solomon lodge had a troubled existence. The lack of experience in Masonic procedure and the lack of communication with Grand Lodge led the brethren to frequent lapses of Masonic protocol. Eventually, the Grand Lodge of Canada requested the return of the charter and the lodge was finally erased from the rolls.

          A group of brethren, however, wanted to work in a regular fashion and decided to establish another lodge. They petitioned the Misraim Oriental Order in Egypt and obtained a charter sometime around 1890, founding The Port of Solomon's Temple lodge in Jaffa. The lodge enjoyed a period of glory when some French Masons, engineers who had come to build the Jaffa – Jerusalem railway, joined the lodge. After their departure, however, the lodge declined and by the end of the century it had disappeared.

          The remaining brethren realized they had to find a new home and in February of 1906 a group held a meeting and decided to found a new lodge, choosing the name L'Aurore (The Dawn, or Barkai in Hebrew). The name chosen was not accidental, because 1906 was the year when Alfred Dreyfus was finally exonerated of all charges in France, and the prime mover of the public fight to clear his name was Emile Zola, whose article "I accuse" was the turning point in that struggle. The article appeared on the first page of the newspaper L'Aurore!

          One of the Jaffa Masons was Maurice Schönberg, a Jewish watchmaker who installed the four clocks on the tower of Jaffa. The clock tower is a town landmark existing until today. Schönberg, whose business took him often to Paris, established contacts with the Grand Orient of France. On March 13, 1906, the members of the newly formed Barkai Lodge submitted a formal petition to the Grand Orient, signed by twelve brethren. One was Alexander Fiani, a Christian merchant born in Beirut, who was proposed as the first Master of the lodge. The other petitioners were Jewish.

          The first Mason to become affiliated to the lodge, however, was a Christian, César Araktingi, an exporter of citrus fruit (the famous Jaffa oranges), and Vice-Consul of Great Britain, initiated on October 18, 1891. His affiliation took place on March 13, 1906, that is to say, the same day when the Barkai petition was formulated.

          Another member of Barkai was David Yudelovich, a journalist writing for Ben Yehuda's paper Ha'tsvi. Ben-Yehuda, as we know, was the leading force in the revival and renewal of the Hebrew language for daily use.

          Araktingi soon replaced Fiani as Master of the Lodge, and continued to hold this position until 1929, that is to say, for 23 years. During the pre-war period, until 1914, the lodge initiated over a hundred new members. An analysis of their religious affiliation is uncertain, because we can rely only on their names, and sometimes their occupation. Then, as now in Israel, the religion of the candidate is never asked or recorded.

          The membership of the lodge included many important personalities:  the mayors of Gaza and of Nablus, bank managers, the chief of police of Jaffa, advocates, judges, farmers, merchants, doctors, pharmacists and engineers. In all these areas one can find Arabs, Turks, Jews and Armenians.  

          It is interesting to note the presence of Persian Consuls in the lodge. Iran was home to a flourishing Freemasonry until the fall of the Shah, when the Order was banned and disbanded. There is a Grand Lodge of Iran in Exile, based in California.

          The happy situation of peaceful coexistence between the various communities of Palestine was disrupted by the Great War of 1914-1919. The dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire resulted in the creation a various nations in the Middle East, with a division of "areas of influence" between England and France. England took control of Palestine, which at the time included the territories on both sides of the Jordan River.

          In 1932, following a bitter struggle in Egyptian Freemasonry, it split into two Grand Lodges. The lodges in the Holy Land under Egyptian jurisdiction decided to become independent, forming the National Grand Lodge of Palestine. The majority of the brethren were Jewish; however, the non-sectarian character of the lodges is confirmed by the fact that the founding ceremony of the new Grand Lodge was presided by M:. W:. Bro:. Fuad Bey Hussein, Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Egypt. Bro. Shuqri Houri, also an Arab, had been elected to sit in King Solomon's throne; unfortunately, he died before he could be installed in office, but he is still regarded as the first Grand Master.

          Despite the troubled relations between the Arab and the Jewish communities, Grand Lodge made constant efforts to attract candidates from all the non-Jewish communities: Christian and Moslem Arabs, Armenians, Druse and Bahai.

          The Druse constitute a distinct ethnic and religious community. They live in northern Israel and southern Syria and Lebanon. Their religion is monotheistic and very secret.

          The Bahai is a religion founded in 1863 in Iran that emphasizes the spiritual unity of all humankind. Suffering religious persecution in Iran, it established its world headquarters in the city of Haifa, in Israel.

          After the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, and the creation of the Grand Lodge of the State of Israel in 1953, Freemasonry in the Holy Land was finally united under one roof, including all 31 lodges operating at the time in the country.

          Galilee Lodge received number 31 in the roster of the Grand Lodge of the State of Israel. It worked in Arabic in the city of Nazareth, with membership of both Christian and Moslem Arabs.

          The Grand Lodge of Israel has made efforts to increase the number of Arab lodges. New lodges were established in Acco, the ancient port of St. John of Acre, the crusader fortress which Napoleon failed to conquer; and in the village of Kfar Yassif, in Western Galilee, which has a large number of Druse brethren.

          A further Arabic-speaking lodge, Ha-Lapid (The Torch) N° 65, (in Arabic: el Shu'ia) which integrates Moslem, Christian and Jewish Masons, was founded in Jerusalem in 1974 (one year after the Yom Kippur War). Its first Master was Jewish: David Greenberg.

          Finally, in 1983, Nazareth Lodge was founded in that city, with both Christian and Moslem membership, working in Arabic

          A Hebrew-speaking lodge with joint Arab-Jewish membership, Na'aman Lodge # 61, was founded in 1968 in Haifa, a city which has always had a mixed ethnic composition. Of the 32 Masters the lodge had between 1968 and 2003, 19 (more than one half) have been Arabs.

          Grand Lodge Officers have always comprised both Arabs and Jews. In fact, M. W. Bro. Jamil Shalhoub, an Arab lawyer from Haifa,  was elected as Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Israel in 1981, and in 1982 was re-elected for a second term. M. W. Bro. Nedim Mansour, a Christian Arab from a village near Haifa, was also elected as Grand Master in 2010, serving for two years.

          Our Fraternity is not an outdated relic of past glories; it is an institution that proclaims its faith in the value of the Human being and of human life, in the permanent validity of moral judgment, in the importance of assuming responsibility for one's words and actions, in the universal brotherhood of Man under the fatherhood of God.

          Freemasonry is not Utopia, we are builders, building not castles in the air, but towers of strength, of moral strength, and we forge not chains of slavery, but the links of fraternal love transcending language and distance.

          The world needs Freemasonry now more than ever. On our part, what we need is enthusiasm, the readiness to undertake the burden of making our voice heard, of teaching tolerance, of combating prejudice and hatred, so that our ideals become our daily mission.

 

 

                  

               

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