One of the cornerstones of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's policy has been his belief that economics is an integral part of any peace process. He has claimed that "we must weave an economic peace alongside a political process... [It] will support and bolster the achievement of political settlements down the line."
The idea that free-market principles and a strong economy mitigate both nationalism and political extremism - especially the resort to violence - has long been a staple of those who argue for democratization and free trade. What Netanyahu and his advisers may not know is that the theory of economic peace has been alive and well in the Holy Land since the 19th century, among Jewish, Arab and Christian Masons.
Few are aware of the connections that exist between Masons, Jews and the conflict in the Middle East. The fascists, such as Francisco Franco, and the Nazis were fervently anti-Mason. The militant Islamist movement has typically seen the Masons as a threat. Hamas describes Freemasonry as a "secret society" controlled by Zionism, and the term "Freemason" is mentioned three times in the Covenant of Hamas adopted in 1988. Israel's most potent enemy in the 1960s, Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, closed all the Masonic lodges of Egypt in 1962.
The Masons are an international fraternal order whose beginnings are traced to Scotland in the 16th century. The movement spread quickly to England and thence to the Americas, where many of the founders were Masons. Freemasonry has been influential in inspiring westernization and secularism among military and political elites in such diverse places as Mexico, Russia and Liberia. However, it has been perceived as deeply threatening to religious groups and conspiracy theorists.
Since its inception, Freemasonry has welcomed Jews as members, and initially most Jewish Masons were from prominent Sephardi families. One of these, Moses Montefiore, is important because of his connection to 19th-century Palestine, where he helped improve the living conditions of local Jews. However, the first Masonic ceremony held in Jerusalem was conducted by a Kentucky-born Mason named Robert Morris at the Cave of Zedekiah (popularly known as King Solomon's Quarries) near Damascus Gate in east Jerusalem. Another Masonic lodge, the Royal Solomon Mother Lodge, was founded in Jaffa in 1873 by American settlers of the Adam's colony. The colony failed, and the lodge was maintained by Rolla Floyd, a survivor of the colony. Another lodge was founded in 1890 in Jaffa by middle-class Jews and Arabs.
The Masonic lodges at this time included Jewish and Arab notables. One example of these, according to an article written by Israeli Mason Leon Zeldis, was a Christian Arab hotel owner named Iskander Awad who was also an agent for the Thomas Cook travel agency. Lodges were founded in Haifa (1911) and Jerusalem (1931), and in each case the membership was composed of leading Jews, Arabs and Europeans.
Dr. Daniel Farhey, a Mason based in Haifa, has written 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 also assists in the social integration of immigrants."
During the British Mandate, the Masons in Palestine experienced a huge influx of British members. It may be no surprise that many of the leading voices behind the establishment of the Mandate, such as Lord Arthur Balfour, and Mandatory administrators such as High Commissioner Herbert Samuel were Masons. The lodge in Jerusalem attracted Jerusalem's business and political elite, among them David Abulafia (Sephardi Jewish leader), Daniel Auster (a General Zionist politician and Jerusalem mayor), the Yeshaya family (Jewish businessmen), S.T. Rock (Arab Catholic businessman), Nagib Mansour (Christian Arab engineer) and members of the Muslim elite who, according to information supplied to the author, may have included the Dajani family. This was a coexistence fraternity based on shared economic values.
Reports from the period state that the lodges "stand for peace." A clipping from The Palestine Post published in 1939 describes the death of Samuel Hashimshoni, who was a "fine exponent of Masonry" and who did not travel with a firearm "as an example to his colleagues of his faith in his fellow man. He maintained and sought contacts with Arab friends."
Prof. Ruth Kark of the Hebrew University and Dr. Joseph Glass have documented how the Sephardi Valero family were prominent Masons and maintained close relationships with Arabs throughout the Mandate. This was the essence of Freemasonry in the Holy Land, and is maintained today in the Grand Lodge in Israel where the Koran, Bible and Torah are displayed together.
Freemasons have been integral to the Land of Israel from the time of Charles Warren (archeologist in 19th-century Jerusalem) to the continued activities of the dozens of lodges, including eight in Jerusalem alone.
However as history has shown, the early attempts at "economic peace" enshrined in the Masonic ideology did not prevent the 1948 war. Communal leaders like Abulafia, Auster and their Arab counterparts stood by as war engulfed their communities.
The question is whether Netanyahu will be more successful at achieving economic peace than his forebears.
Seth Franzman, "Terra Incognita: The first economic peace in the Holy Land", in the Jesusalem Post