The True Story of Jews and Freemasons
Click here to read more about the Zohar in The Lost Symbol
Dan Brown, the creator of The Da Vinci Code literary empire, has made a career out of spinning fictional tales revolving around secretive fraternal organizations. After writing about The Knights’ Templar, the Priory of Sion and the Illuminati, Brown turns his attention to the Freemasons in his latest book, The Lost Symbol. Set in Washington, DC, the novel follows Brown’s recurrent character, famed “symbologist” Robert Langdon, as dramatic events propel the Harvard professor into the enigmatic world of Freemason legend and ritual.
Freemasons, also known as Masons, have long been subjected to persecution—and linked to the Jews. Most infamously, the 20th-century anti-Semitic Russian forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, claimed that Freemasons were in league with Jews in a quest for world domination. While few take these claims seriously, the secrecy of the Freemasons has fed centuries of suspicion: Are they a brotherhood of men who wear funny aprons, partake in quaint ceremonies and raise money for good causes or, as Brown suggests, an intellectual and enlightened cabal whose members extend to the upper echelons of political power?
Legend has it that their forefathers were the stonemasons of King Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. More likely, Freemasonry evolved from a medieval trade guild of skilled stone carvers in England, Scotland and France that in the 1700s grew into a civic fraternity that met in buildings called lodges all over the world. Masonic philosophy drew on ideas from many religious traditions, and its adherents were remarkable—with the occasional exception—for welcoming members of all creeds, affording them a path of social mobility. This was the case for many Jews in Western Europe. The first Jewish Mason was recorded in England in 1732 and by 1793, an entire Jewish lodge was established in London.
Freemasonry became popular in colonial America, where the Freemasons’ self-described mission to “make good men better” resonated, and Masons played a vital role in the founding of the United States. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and other Founding Fathers were Masons, as were prominent Jewish figures such as Haym Salomon, the prime financier of the American Revolution, and merchant Moses Michael Hayes, who was the Grand Master of the lodge where Paul Revere served as Deputy Grand Master. Other notable Jewish Masons range from British philanthropist Moses Montefiore and Hungarian-born illusionist Harry Houdini to American composer Irving Berlin and Samuel Gompers, founder of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). There have been 51 Jewish Grand Masters in the United States, and Israel itself is home to 60 Masonic lodges.
Moment talks with Paul Bessel, author of Masonic Questions & Answers and a former Senior Grand Warden of the Grand Lodge of Washington, DC, about Jews in Freemasonry, The Lost Symbol and what he can share about the group’s secrets.—Sarah Breger
Why did Jews become Freemasons?
In the 1600s and 1700s, Jews weren’t allowed to be citizens; they were prohibited from certain occupations; they were pushed into ghettos. And yet, one institution existed that from its very beginning welcomed them. We take this for granted now but back then the idea of people of different religions working together—the fundamental principle of Freemasonry—was uncommon and revolutionary.
Do Freemasons believe in God?
Once you state that you believe in a Supreme Being or God, you are welcome in Masonry and no further questions are asked. There are a few exceptions: In France, there is one Grand Lodge that is well-known for allowing people in whether they believe in God or not.
Has Judaism influenced Freemasonry?
A lot of Masonic ritual is derived from the Jewish Bible or Old Testament. The rituals are based on the story of King Solomon’s Temple.
What elements of the initiation ritual are Jewish?
I’m not supposed to say exactly what the ritual is, but when you go through it, you feel you are at home because you are hearing stories and learning lessons from the Temple of Solomon.
Do Freemasons have one leader?
Freemasonry, like Judaism, doesn’t have one supreme authority. There is no such thing as a Pope for Freemasonry.
Can Catholics be Freemasons?
Since the early 1700s, the Catholic Church has issued successive papal bulls prohibiting Catholics from joining Freemasonry. The current Pope, when he was a cardinal, reaffirmed the decree that it is incompatible with Catholicism to be a Freemason. In reality, I know many Freemasons who are Catholics. A few Protestant sects have also formally prohibited members from becoming Freemasons.
How many Freemasons are there?
There are about three to four million worldwide, including roughly one and a half million in the United States. Freemasonry’s inclusiveness appeals to both Jews and non-Jews and you are just as likely to find an Asian or an African American in a group of Freemasons as a white Protestant.
When was the peak of contemporary Jewish involvement in Freemasonry?
Many American lodges reached their peak after World War II, which is true of Freemasonry in general. Jews who fought in the war had spent four years with men in the closest circumstances and they wanted to continue the camaraderie. Many joined when they came home. That’s when my father joined.
When did you join the Freemasons?
In 1987, on the 10th anniversary of my father’s death. A lot of men become Masons because they want to maintain a connection to a grandfather or a father.
Has the number of Jews involved in Freemasonry declined in recent years?
The issue isn’t so much Jews dropping out but that the majority of people are less likely nowadays to be joiners. But there is still large Jewish participation; probably the proportion of Jews involved in Freemasonry exceeds the proportion of Jews in the U.S. population, and this is also true in other countries.
Are women allowed to be Freemasons?
Women have been Masons ever since the beginning of Freemasonry. There is an auxiliary group called the Order of the Eastern Star that is for women. There are also women’s Masonic lodges and a few co-ed lodges. There must be, however, only a couple hundred female Freemasons. Many [male] Freemasons don’t like to think that women are performing the same rituals but that is exactly what they are doing.
Why is secrecy so important?
It is considered a test of your character that if you promise to keep something a secret, you do.
What is actually secret and what isn’t?
In general, anything that is written you can discuss with a non-Mason and anything that is not written you can’t. For example, the words of the ritual aren’t written down so I can’t tell you those words. In contrast, information about our membership requirements, philosophy, history and locations of lodges is public, and there are some ceremonies in which certain parts of the ritual are shown to anyone who walks in.
What do you think of the portrayal of Freemasonry in The Lost Symbol?
It is maybe 90 percent accurate. There are a couple of things Brown exaggerated in terms of ritual.
Was Brown’s depiction of the Masonic initiation ceremony correct?
The book makes a big deal over a videotape of the initiation ceremony, which, if made public, would bring down the government. My fellow Masons laughed at this part of the book. Brown’s description of the ritual is not tremendously wrong, but the idea that it would be inflammatory is way off. If you saw the ritual, you would think it quaint, perhaps kind of silly and not at all dangerous. What makes the ceremony interesting is that it is based on old-fashioned language and ritual, and that it is the same initiation that George Washington went through.
What about his description of Washington as a city of Masonic symbols?
In my opinion, Brown has stretched the truth. There is no basis to the assertion that the city’s streets are laid out to look like Masonic symbols. You can take any city based on a grid system and add a couple of diagonal streets, and see a lion, a tiger or a Masonic symbol. There is also some question as to whether Pierre Charles L’Enfant, who laid out Washington, DC, was a Mason. Even if he was, I don’t believe he tried to shape the streets into Masonic symbols.
Brown says that Freemasons were involved in the construction of the Washington Monument, U.S. Capitol and other federal buildings. Is this true?
The Washington Monument was dedicated in a Masonic ceremony, as were the White House and U.S. Capitol. George Washington himself put on a Masonic apron and led a Masonic service while laying the cornerstone of the Capitol. Masons are very interested in architecture and in the laying of cornerstones. Even now you can call a local lodge and ask them to perform a cornerstone ceremony that everyone can watch. It is somewhat similar to our initiation ceremony, so it will give you an idea of how exciting—or unexciting—our initiation ceremony is.
Is it true that the painting at the Capitol, the “Apotheosis of Washington,” that depicts George Washington becoming a god, has Masonic significance?
The painting of George Washington on the dome of the rotunda of the Capitol, which is highlighted in Dan Brown’s book, appears to have some Masonic symbolism in it. It could be that the painter knew the symbolism or it could just be a coincidence.
How did it come about that so much of 20th century “hate literature” associates Freemasonry and Judaism?
Adolf Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf that Freemasonry and Judaism were two sides of the same coin—both were trying to take over the world—and that Jews used Masonry to hide that they were trying to take over the world. Hitler put Freemasons into concentration camps as well as Jews. Hitler was not the first; during the Dreyfus affair, French anti-Semites who were attacking Dreyfus also attacked Freemasonry. I have never been able to find evidence that Dreyfus was a Mason but the Freemasons of France strongly supported him.
Are there lodges in Muslim countries?
In most Muslim countries, Masonry is prohibited by law because it is considered to be part of the so-called worldwide Jewish conspiracy. In Saudi Arabia, for example, a Mason will be put in jail. There are reports of secret Masonic lodges in Muslim countries, but I don’t know if they’re true. There were rumors that King Hussein of Jordan was a Mason, but in the same way he kept his contacts with Israel a secret for so many years, there is no telling whether it is true or not. Turkey is the one Muslim country where there are no restrictions on Masonry.
Is there anti-Masonic sentiment today in America?
I am sorry to say a little bit of anti-Masonic feeling exists in the United States, too. Pat Robertson of the Christian Broadcasting Network, for example, has written books that say Freemasonry is an evil institution.
Why be a Jewish Freemason today?
I joined for the connection with my father, but the more I read about Masonry, the more I see that, throughout history, Masons have always been supportive of justice and equality for all people. I feel very proud to be a part of that tradition.