Freemasonry In Israel

Leon Zddis, MPS

Israel is privileged by having in its capital city the site of Freemasonry's legendary cradle: the Temple built in Jerusalem by King Solomon almost exactly three thousand years ago. It is rather surprising, then, that historically our craft was introduced in this part of the world only in relatively recent times. Its full development had to await the consecration of the Grand Lodge of the State of Israel, in 1953. Individual Masons may have visited the country, even stayed for some time (among Napoleon's officers, for example, many were Freemasons), but there was no organized Masonic activity until the second half of the nineteenth century.

What is not generally known is the involvement of American Masons in the first stirrings of Masonic activity in this country.

Indeed, the first recorded Masonic ceremony in Israel (then part of the Ottoman Empire) was performed by M.W. Bro. Robert Morris, past Grand Master (1859) of the Grand Lodge of Kentucky.[1] The event took place on Wednesday, 13 May 1868, in the Cave of Zedekiah, better known as King Solomon's Quarries, deep under the walls of the old city of Jerusalem. Morris was then on a Masonic pilgrimage to the Holy Land, looking for traces of Ancient Freemasonry.[2 The men who joined Morris in a Secret Monitor ceremony were the few Freemasons he had found in Palestine: Charles Warren, then on an archeological mission for the Palestine Exploration Fund of London,[3] and later first W.M. of the premier Lodge of Research, Quatuor Coronati No. 2076; the Turkish governor of Jaffa, Noureddin Effendi, member of Lodge Amitie Clemente of Paris, who held the 28 degree in the A.A.S.R.; Henry Petermann, Consul of Prussia in Jerusalem; R. Beardsley, of Elkhart, Indiana, then serving as American Vice-Consul in Jerusalem; and several officers from the British vessel Lord Clyde, then at anchor in Jaffa.

The "American Connection" in the development of Freemasonry in Israel did not stop here, for Robert Morris's untiring efforts brought about the creation of the first regular Masonic Lodge in Palestine. Royal Solomon Mother Lodge No. 293 was chartered by the Grand Lodge of Canada (Ontario) on 17 February 1873. Most, if not all its founding members were American settlers living in Jaffa, who belonged to a Christian sect, the Church of the Messiah. In 1866, they had left Jonesport, Maine, for the Holy Land, with the avowed intention of founding an agricultural settlement and preparing for the Second Coming.[4] Robert Morris was supposed to be the Lodge's first Master, but it appears that he could not arrive, and Bro. Rolla Floyd, one of the leaders of the American group (called "The Palestine Emigration Society"), took his place. Other lodge members whose names have been preserved are John Sheville, C.E Tyrwhilt Drake, George May Powell, Sam Bergheim, James Hilpern and Peter Bergheim. The lodge had a fitful existence. It initiated a number of Arab and Jewish members, but the group met with hard times, some died, others went back to the United States, and the whole enterprise disintegrated among bitter mutual recriminations and accusations of financial irregularities. This situation naturally affected the lodge, which stopped reporting to the Grand Lodge of Canada and was eventually erased in 1907.

The next Masonic lodge to be formed in Israel was officially established in Jaffa (The Royal Solomon Mother Lodge was supposed to meet "at the City of Jerusalem or adjacent places in Palestine," though there can be little doubt that its meeting place was in Jaffa). Around 1890, a group of Arab and Jewish Brethren petitioned the Misraim Rite,[5] based in Paris, and founded the Lodge "Le Port du Temple de Salomon" (The Port of Solomon's Temple), working in French. Not long after its creation, the Lodge received a large number of affiliate members, French engineers who had come to build the Jaffa-Jerusalem railway, the first in Palestine. One of the financial backers and promoters for this pioneering effort was Haim Amzalak,[6] father of Joseph. The influx of French engineers led some writers to conclude that they had founded the Jaffa Lodge, though this was not the case. Another colorful figure of the time was a Christian Arab called Iskander Awad, who Anglicized his name to Alexander Howard. Brother Howard was a rich man, owning hotels in Jaffa and Jerusalem. He was the local agent for Cook's, the British travel firm, and ran a stagecoach service. His own home in Jaffa served as a Masonic Temple, and the ornate marble entrance stands to this day (though the place is now a furniture store). There is a motto in Hebrew—Shalom Al Israel—engraved over the door. The legend is connected with the 18 degree of the Scottish Rite, Chevalier Rose-Croix. In fact, Howard called himself Le Chevalier Howard. He built some of the first houses outside the walls of Jaffa and gave his name to a street.

In 1906, realizing that the Misraim Rite was irregular and unrecognized by most Grand Lodges of the world, the Brethren of the Jaffa Lodge decided to change its affiliation to the Grand Orient of France. They adopted a new name, Barkai (Dawn), and eventually become integrated into the Grand Lodge of the State of Israel. Lodge Barkai is the oldest in the country still in existence and, though it now works in Hebrew, its ritual preserves many features of the French Masonic tradition.

Three other Lodges were constituted before World War I, when the country became a British Mandate. Under British rule, a number of Lodges were chartered by several Grand Lodges, particularly those of Egypt and Scotland, and the Grand Orient of France, which was extremely active in the entire Middle East. Some of these Lodges are still in existence to this day, while others disappeared for diverse reasons.

Special mention should be made of the five German-speaking lodges founded in Palestine in 1931 by the Grand Master of the Symbolic Grand Lodge of Germany. With great vision, M.W. Bro. Otto Muffelmann realized that the rise of Nazism in Germany sounded the death knell for Freemasonry in his country, traveled to Palestine and, with the help of German Brethren who had emigrated there escaping the Nazi's racist laws, founded Lodges in all the main cities: Jerusalem, Tel-Aviv and Haifa. Soon after, Freemasonry was in effect banned in Germany, the Lodges disbanded and many Brethren met their death in the concentration camps. The German lodges in Israel kept living the flame of German Freemasonry during those dark days and, after the Allied victory, were successful in reestablishing regular Freemasonry on German soil.[7]

A partial union of Israeli Freemasonry was achieved on January 9, 1933, when the National Grand Lodge of Palestine was constituted, bringing together all the Lodges that had been working under Egyptian and French jurisdictions. The Scottish lodges, however, refused to join in, and only a few Grand Lodges recognized the new sovereign body. Finally, in 1953 Masonic unity was achieved and, in an impressive ceremony conducted in Jerusalem by Brother the Earl of Elgin and Kincardine, Past Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Scotland, the Grand Lodge of the State of Israel was consecrated. M.W. Bro. Shabetay Levy, mayor of Maifa, was installed as the first Grand Master. All lodges then working in Israel turned in their charters and were admitted into the new Grand Lodge, which quickly established fraternal relations with regular Grand Lodges throughout the world.

The number of Lodges working under the Grand Lodge of the State of Israel grew during the years, reaching some 70 active lodges at this time. The last to raise its columns was the French-speaking Lodge "France" No. 77 in Jerusalem, consecrated in January 1993, in the presence of the Grand Master and Grand Office-Bearers of the (regular) National Grand Lodge of France.

Israel is a country of immigrants, similar in that respect to the United States. The heterogeneous composition of its population is also reflected in the large number of lodges operating in foreign languages. The two official languages in Israel are Hebrew and Arabic. Apart from these two, however, there are lodges working in six other languages: English, French, Spanish, German, Romanian and Turkish.

Not only in the languages they use, but in their rituals as well, diversity characterizes Israel Freemasonry. Hebrew and Arabic-speaking lodges mostly work according to standard rituals approved by the Grand Lodge, based on the ritual of the Grand Lodge of Scotland. Foreign-language lodges generally use the rituals habitual in their countries of origin. Lodge Raanana, for instance, which was founded by immigrants from South-Africa and Rhodesia, uses the Netherlands ritual. Spanish-speaking lodges use the A.A.S.R. ritual, widely used in Latin America and Spain.

Freemasonry plays an important role in the successful absorption of new immigrants and their integration in Israel society. What is more important, perhaps, is that Freemasonry is one of the few institutions that actively promotes better understanding between the different ethnic and cultural segments of Israel society, particularly between Jewish and Arab Brethren, and this owing to our wise tradition of avoiding religious and political controversies within the lodges.

In Grand assemblies, three Volumes of the Sacred Law are opened side by side upon the altar: the Hebrew Bible (Tanach), The Christian Bible and the Koran. Furthermore, there are three Grand Officers to bear these books. The official seal of the Grand Lodge encloses the symbols of the three great monotheistic religions within the square and compass. No statistics exist about the distribution of Israel Freemasons according to their religious affiliation, for the simple reason that no such question is asked when they join. A rough estimate would be about 80% Jewish, 15% Christian and 5% Muslim. Some lodges are composed mostly of Arab Brethren, though Arabic-speaking Jewish Brethren are welcome. Frequent joint meetings are held between lodges and, recently, a project was launched by W. Bro. Juan Goldwasser, of La Fraternidad Lodge in Tel-Aviv, to encourage mixed social meetings in the homes of Brethren, to foster better knowledge and understanding between the different communities.

Individual lodges and Grand Lodge itself perform numerous charitable activities, including donations of expensive medical equipment to hospitals, help to the blind, and food for the needy. The Order maintains a parents' home in Naharhya, a resort town near the Lebanese border.

This year, the Grand Lodge of the State of Israel, under the leadership of M.W. Bro. Itzhak Barzilay, celebrates its 40th anniversary. A gala function will be held in Jerusalem on 26 October. When you read these lines, the event will be history. However, our doors are always open to Brethren from any recognized Grand Lodge who visit Israel individually or in a group. Once a year, A Mark Master degree in English is held in King Solomon's Quarries and, except for the Summer months (July-August), at least one Lodge is working every day.

Forty years is not a very long time, but is enough to look back, measure the strides we have made, and undertake with renewed determination and confi- dence the great work that lays ahead. We must bring, to a region with a long history of strife and hatred, our message of enlightenment, toleration and fraternal love.


[1] Rob Morris is best remembered for his co-authorship of the Order of the Eastern Star, a Masonic order for women, created at a time when women were not even allowed to vote. See 'Rob Morris, Founder of Eastern Star' by David B. Dibdrell, The Scottish Rite Journal, November 1992, pp. 12.12-15.

[2] Which resulted in his book Freemasonry in the Holy Land, New York, 1872.

[3) See Bro. George H.T. French, FPS, 'Sir Charles Warren', The Philalethes, Vol. 39, February 1986, No. 1, p. 10.

[4] Their story served as the basis for a film written and directed by Dr. Yael Katzir, of Tel-Aviv: To Brave a Dream (1992).

[5] The records of the time appear to have been destroyed. My inquiries at the present headquarters of the Misraim Rite have produced no information on this matter.

[6] Sraya Shapiro, "Visionary who made Jerusalem habitable for modern man", The Jerusalem Post, 29 August 1993, p. 7

[7] A similar role was played by some German-speaking Lodges in Chile.