Jewish-Arab Relations in Israeli Freemasonry: Between Civil Society and Nationalism

By Kaplan, Danny | The Middle East Journal, Summer 2014 | Go to article overview

Jewish-Arab Relations in Israeli Freemasonry: Between Civil Society and Nationalism


Kaplan, Danny, The Middle East Journal


This article applies ethnographic methods and historical analysis to explore Jewish-Arab relations within Israeli Freemasonry. The article tracks local Masonic history as the fraternity developed from individual lodges under colonial- like obediences in late Ottoman and Mandate-era Palestine into a national-level organization, under the Grand Lodge of the State of Israel. In light of an official position of political noninvolvement, Jewish and Arab-Palestinian members conveyed shared values of universal fraternity, but variable interpretations of citizenship and nationalism.

In 1995, the Masonic Grand Lodge of Argentina inaugurated the International Masonic Peace Prize, to be awarded to individuals and institutions engaged in pro- moting brotherhood and peaceful coexistence among groups and nations. Among its recipients were Juan Goldwaser and Rami Farran, credited for establishing a model of cooperation and intervisitation between their respective lodges in Tel Aviv and Nazareth and for strengthening fraternal links and personal contacts between Jewish and Arab Freemasons in Israel.1 In the face of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, alienation between Israel's Jewish and Palestinian citizens remains a central cleavage in Israeli society, with limited social ties between the two communities. Against this backdrop, Israeli Freemasons take pride in organizational and personal ties between Jewish and Arab members. This study provides a first window into the complexities of these interactions, examining the tension between civic and national attachments in the eyes of local Masons.

Freemasonry, arguably the world's largest and oldest fraternal order, began to spread internationally in the 18th century, on the wings of British and French imperial- ism. Structured as a quasi-secret society, Freemasonry formed perhaps the first social network of global scope in modern times. Historians note how its professed principles of universal brotherhood and enlightened civility translated in various instances into either particularist national or Eurocentric identifications among local members in the 18th and 19th centuries.2 On one hand, within the secluded spaces of Masonic lodges, men of diverse occupational, social, religious, and ethnic backgrounds were able to discuss questions of constitution, self-governance, and social order, and to settle disputes by employing a civic/democratic political vocabulary.3 On the other hand, outside of the lodge, individual members of Masonic lodges often actively participated in struggles for national independence, as noted in the United States, Latin America,4 the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1905-7,5 the 1908 Young Turk Revolution,6 and the first democratic revolution in Egypt in 1919.7 When facing antidemocratic regimes, it is easy to understand why Freemasons might join national revolutions in the name of liberal universal values. But even as their nation-states were established in the 18th century and later, local lodge members often favored patriotism over universalism.8 This tendency is particularly evident in the Israeli case, where in 1953, Masonic lodges organized as a na- tionwide organization, termed the Grand Lodge of the State of Israel (hereafter, GLSI), that incorporated all lodges in places that fell under Israeli sovereignty.

This article explores how universalist values and particularist preferences are ne- gotiated by local masons in Israel, drawing on personal interviews and participant obser- vations during lodge activities.9 GLSI is one of the only recognized local grand lodges operating to date in the Middle East.10 It adheres to the orthodox principles of main- stream English Freemasonry, among them a stated belief in God (or a Supreme Being) and an exclusion of women from membership, although members' wives often assume active roles in lodge social life. The majority of Israeli Freemasons are Jewish. How- ever, four lodges have largely Christian-Arab memberships, with small-to-negligible Druze and Muslim participation. …

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