Faced with dwindling ranks, the Freemasons are trying to shed their secretive image. The grand master of an Israeli branch says the organization is ‘Boy Scouts for adults’ and joining is as easy as sending an email – for men, that is
A few months ago, my father joined the Freemasons. As a kid, I had read everything I could about the organization, after a girlfriend told me in secret that her father was a Freemason. She made me swear not to tell anyone, and gave me the feeling that I would die if anyone found out that I knew.
My father, who attached a small pin to his jacket lapel, also wasn’t very forthcoming, beyond saying that he’d gotten through the initiation ceremony successfully. One recent Saturday, we were in a restaurant when a bottle of arak was brought to our table, and someone called out from the adjacent table, “Lechayim, my brother.” My father raised a glass in the direction of the man, a stranger, and responded, “Lechayim, my brother.” As he drank, he added, “We are all brothers and we do everything we can for each other, everywhere in the world. This is the most fraternal organization I’ve ever belonged to.”
If in the past, Freemasonry conjured up notions of a mysterious organization, and was spoken of in cautious whispers with furtive sideways glances, its members appear to be undergoing a genuine revolution. Just last week, the organization ran large ads in three newspapers in Britain, as part of a public relations campaign, in response, it said, to being “undeservedly stigmatized” in general. Last month, representatives of the Freemasons held an open meeting in Jerusalem. The trend, then, seems to be that the organization, which always maintained discretion of a type usually reserved for an espionage organization, is loosening up.
I visited the Grand Lodge of the Freemasons in Israel, in Tel Aviv, in pursuit of my work as a Holocaust researcher, seeking to better understand this centuries-old, apolitical brotherhood of men from different walks of life who are, in essence, trying to make the world a better place. The fate of the Freemasons in Nazi labor and extermination camps is a largely unknown chapter of World War II and has hardly been studied. Believing that the Jews dominated Freemasonry, the Nazis shut down German lodges, burned entire Masonic libraries, and nationalized precious objects and art collections belonging to the members. They herded Freemasons into camps and forced them to wear a red patch in the shape of an upside-down triangle, as though to deprive them of the power embodied in their organization’s equilateral-triangle symbol.
Hitler referred to the Freemasons in “Mein Kampf” and accused the Jews of conspiring with them to take control of Germany. At the height of the war, Hitler believed that the Freemasons in Germany were transmitting reports to their Freemason brother, U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Upon ascending to power in 1933, Hitler shut down all nine Grand Lodges of the Freemasons in Germany. He established a sub-department in the S.S. whose task was to locate, arrest and annihilate nearly 79,000 German Freemasons. Across Europe, the Nazis murdered about 200,000 Freemasons.
Still, at least one triumphant photograph, of a secret nighttime ceremony that the Freemasons held in an extermination camp has survived. While they are not seen wearing their special garb, they had each other – and the hope that morality and fraternity would once more reign in the world.
Not a cult
There are 50 lodges in Israel subordinate to the Grand Lodge, with a total of about 1,200 brothers. The Grand Lodge takes up half a floor in Tel Aviv’s prestigious Museum Tower office building. At the entrance is an unhewn stone from Zedekiah’s Cave, under the Old City, in Jerusalem, which is said to symbolize mankind in a condition of perpetual development and enrichment. Inside are offices, two temples, a museum and a library, replete with symbols, sculptures and images of Freemasonry. Each object has a depiction on it a square and a set of compasses with the letter “G” in the center. The square and compasses stand for spirit and matter, credibility and integrity. The “G” represents God, and also the word “geometry.” On the front door is the distinctive symbol of the Grand Lodge in Israel – a square and compasses enclosing the symbols of Judaism, Christianity and Islam: the Star of David, the cross and the crescent. The country’s lodges organize activities, often for mixed groups of members of different religions, in a variety of languages – Hebrew, Turkish, Russian and Spanish.
The shelves of the library here in Tel Aviv are filled with ancient books, and the large temple is tiled in black and white, with a capacious chair, reserved for the Grand Master. The ceiling is painted to look like the sky. It’s here that the Freemasons’ ceremonies are held.
“Freemasonry is not a cult, not a mystery group and not a secret organization. It’s an organization that contains secrets,” explains Roy G. Guttmann, 41, a lawyer and the grand master of Lodge Muffelmann Oman 29, after Leo Muffelmann from Germany, who “brought the German Masonic light to Israel.”
Adds Guttmann, “When I’m asked what Freemasonry is, I reply that it’s Scouts for adults.”
Then why has it become known as a mysterious, secret organization?
“Because in the past the availability of information wasn’t what it is today, at the click of a keyboard. In the past, not everyone was accepted.”
Can anyone be a member today?
“Not everyone is accepted today, either. In the past, it was by word of mouth and at the recommendation of a Mason. Today you can apply to the lodge in Israel or one abroad via websites and also email the Grand Lodge, and someone will contact you.”
There’s a feeling lately that you’re opening up to the world. The newspaper ad in England, an invitation by the Jerusalem Freemasons to an open evening, the fact that we’ve been sitting here for a few hours already. Could it be that you’re trying to recruit new members?
“The Freemasons organization consists of an older public, and we want to make it more youthful. But you have to remember that being a Mason is a way of life of morality, integrity, help and truth. If we don’t want the Masonic idea to die out, we need new brothers.”
Freemasonry’s roots are unknown. The organization’s traditional narrative dates Freemasonry to the period of King Solomon and the building of the First Temple. But there’s no worship in the organization, and there are no ritual sacrifices. The official version of the history of Freemasonry dates to the Middle Ages, the era of the guilds, when the earliest members were actual masons – placing stone on stone and building the cathedrals. They knew the secrets of construction, how to lay a keystone and the direction from which light enters the cathedral.
From the European feudal lords who paid their salaries, they would receive permits that allowed them to move relatively freely between countries. Monarchs, dukes and counts, grasping that a secret, prestigious guild had been created under their very nose, tried to infiltrate it. The Freemasons accepted the noblemen because of their status and the philosophical knowledge they possessed.
After 1717, when the organization was established in Britain, was focused more on the realm of the philosophical and spiritual than it was on the profession of masonry. And in view of the fact that it’s still an international organization with secrets, its members use covert identifying marks to recognize one another.
Another unifying element of Freemasons is their jargon. Anyone who is not a member is called secular or a “light seeker” (referring to the seeking of what is called the Masonic light); death is called the “eternal orient.” Freemasons address each other as “my brother.” For my part, I was asked to call them “uncles,” as they are my father’s brothers.
There are three degrees of Freemasonry membership. The first, usually bestowed in the first year after admittance, is known as the degree of “entered apprentice.” To reach the second degree, the candidate has to pass a test or prepare a brief study on a certain subject and deliver a lecture on famous Freemasons, important events involving them, symbolism in the initiation ceremony or the Masonic light. Achieving the next degree requires coming “to work,” meaning attending involvement in activities such as weekly meetings, study, etc.
“As soon as you cross the threshold from the secular world to the work of the masons, you enter a realm in which you are meant to preserve harmony between the brothers,” Guttmann explains. “In Freemasonry we don’t talk about such subjects as religion, politics or sex. Those are volatile conversational subjects, which are liable to cause disharmony in the lodge.”
The second degree is known as “fellowcraft.” After half a year to a year of activities including study and research, lectures, etc. and a test, the “master mason” degree is bestowed. As part of that third degree the Israeli Freemason assumes certain rights and obligations, which include upholding the laws of the state, preserving the laws of morality and maintaining the regulations of the order as they appear in the organization’s constitution.
What is the agenda of meetings?
“It’s a regular agenda that includes an opening and closing ceremony and other activities. The meeting includes lectures that the brothers deliver on the basis of studies they’ve conducted. After the closing ceremony there’s a white table – a shared meal.”
Can I attend an initiation?
“Unfortunately, the answer is no.”
The rituals differ from one lodge to another, and the brothers vote on them democratically. There are special lodges in Israel, such as one named for the great illusionist Houdini, who was a Freemason. Prospective candidates for that lodge must take a course in magic, and every brother is obliged to put on a magic show in a school, hospital or similar institution. There’s also a Mozart lodge, named for the composer, who also belonged to the Freemasons (members have to have an interest in music). The Russian-speaking lodge draws mostly members from the former Soviet Union. And there are “research lodges,” to promote the study of the organization’s history.
Famous Freemasons abound: 14 American presidents, including George Washington and Gerald Ford; Mark Twain; and even Theodor Tobler, from Switzerland, the inventor of Toblerone, the chocolate bar brand, whose design is Masonic, according to some. Legend has it that Gustav Eiffel, a genuine engineer-builder, designed the Eiffel Tower to emulate the Masonic triangle.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin joined the New York lodge of the Freemasons during his tenure as ambassador to the United States, although the Grand Lodge in Israel has no documents confirming his membership in Israel. “Possibly that’s why Rabin was so close to [Jordan’s] King Hussein, who was also a Freemason,” Guttmann notes.
“The straight-angled triangle or the equilateral triangle is symbolic,” he explains. “The straight angle symbolizes honesty between the brothers, and the equal [length of the] sides – the equality between them. There’s a Masonic saying that the only time you’re allowed to look at someone from above is when you help them stand up.”
Another element of Freemasonry that has existed since the organization’s genesis is a ban on women from taking part in its ceremonies. “It’s a tradition,” Guttmann insists, “and not, heaven forbid, because we think women are an inferior class.”
I understand that there’s a parallel women’s organization, the Order of Free Weavers.
“Only in the United States. There are other orders, which aren’t recognized, some of them lodges of women only, or mixed lodges. They call themselves ‘Masons’ but aren’t recognized by the United Grand Lodge of England.”
Your organization presents itself as moral, humanitarian and just, but how is that possible without women?
“That is very difficult to explain. When I entered the organization, I assumed that the reason was that women in general had no [voting] rights until the 19th century. The tradition has continued.”
Happy and sad
There are times, however, in which women are allowed to enter a lodge, Guttmann notes – “one happy ceremony and one sad one.” The happy one, he says, is “Wife Day and Flower Holiday.” On that day, “a brother honors the woman who is close to his heart – wife, girlfriend, daughter. All the brothers invite their partners, and at the concluding stage the work is halted … A Masonic ceremony is held to honor the women, and afterward the Grand Master’s wife or the wife of a veteran member is asked to speak. In the end, the wives leave, the lodge is restored to activity and all go for a joint meal.”
And the sad ceremony?
“The sad ceremony is a mourning service. When a brother passes to the eternal orient and we want to close the circle for the family, we hold a ceremony called ‘work,’ and allow the brother’s whole family into the lodge. The ceremony is filled with symbolism and melancholy elements, eulogies are delivered on behalf of the lodge, and the family members speak. It’s the lodge’s way of saying, ‘We’re here for the family.’”
Do the wives know the brothers?
“Definitely. A wife can appeal for help at any time after a brother passes. There are activities in which interaction takes place between the wives and brothers. Before admittance to the Freemasons, there is an interview in which forms are filled out, and if the brother is married we usually go to his house to meet the wife. There are two reasons for this: both so she will get to know the people involved and won’t think her partner has disappeared from home, and also so that she will be able to ask questions herself.”
Didn’t Dan Brown expose your secrets in his 2009 novel “The Lost Symbol,” which is mostly about Freemasonry?
“To the best of my knowledge, Dan Brown is not a Freemason. His information was culled from reading dozens of published books and studies, dealing with Freemasonry.”
What’s the difference between Freemasonry and a cult?
“In his book, Dan Brown explains clearly the difference between a cult and other organizations. There is no one figure here that people worship or to whom they donate. It’s not a belief in a particular religion. Freemasonry accepts brothers from the monotheistic religions, such as Buddhism, but it depends on which branch of Buddhism. There’s a famous picture of a Freemason altar on which there are nine holy books – from Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Druidism. Each one represents the Masons’ book of faith.”
Who are the members of the Freemasons? Is that a secret?
“You see the ring, the tie, the pin? Why do you think there’s a secret? One morning I entered a courthouse and the judge asked, ‘What is that pin?’ I told him I was a Freemason. It’s up to each brother whether he will introduce himself as a Freemason. It’s not that anyone is ‘outed.’ The name and photograph of the new Grand Master in Israel, Suliman Salem, is on our site, but beyond that it’s the choice of each person whether to introduce himself as such.”
How is one accepted as a member?
“The process differs in each lodge. With us you have to come to fraternal evenings. My lodge meets twice a month, once for work and once for fraternity … Your lodge isn’t your real family, but it’s certainly the third or fourth circle in your life, after wife and children, extended family, friends. Fraternal evenings contribute to the creation of that glue.”
When would you eject a brother?
“If a brother transgressed against the order itself. If he was convicted of a criminal offense. Of course, we’re not talking about a traffic offense, but something serious.”
Whom will you not accept?
“An atheist cannot be admitted to Freemasonry. Nor can a person without any religion be accepted, unless he believes in a supreme being, defined as a force of fate. His only way to be admitted is to lie. But then he’ll probably lose interest and leave at his own initiative.”
Author: “Dr. Maya Guez is a researcher and lecturer in the Goldstein-Goren Diaspora Research Center at Tel Aviv University and in the Department of Politics and Communication at Hadassah Academic College in Jerusalem.”