A Hill in Jerusalem

With a hat tip to MR for telling me to write about this, I’m taking a page (well, a book really) from James Michener and will share the history of a particular hill in Jerusalem.  Today this beautiful overlook south of the Old City is called Armon HaNatziv.


Like Michener, let’s start at the beginning of recorded time.  One of the first things to happen on this hill was Abraham telling his servants to wait for him while he and his son Isaac went to Mt. Moriah (Genesis 22:5). I’m sure I don’t need to tell you what happened then.

David’s son Absalom started a conspiracy and went to war against David.  He apparently got some bad advice somewhere to the south of the City of David.  Absalom’s tomb is in the valley below the Temple Mount (II Samuel 15-18).  So while it’s not quite on Armon HaNatiziv, it’s pretty close.

There seems to be some thought that King Solomon let his foreign wives build a temple on this hill to foreign gods.  And this turned Solomon away from the Lord.  (See I Kings:11.)

King Herod decided that he needed to get water to Jerusalem. He managed to build a water system that brought water uphill to Jerusalem from Bethlehem.  Rather than go over this big hill to the south of the city, he dug through it.

Around the same time, Judas met with some Pharisees on a hill to the south of Jerusalem where they were plotting to get rid of Jesus.  With the 30 pieces of silver he got, he bought some property on the top of the hill where he “burst open” and died.  From that point on, the place of conspiracy was known as the Hill of Evil Counsel and the place where Judas burst was called the Field of Blood. (See John 11:47-53 and Acts 1:18-19.)

In 70 CE, Jerusalem fell and Jews were flung to the four corners of the earth.  I’m sure more things happened on the hill, but we’ll jump forward in time to the British Mandatory period.

View from Armon HaNatziv at night.

After World War I, the Ottoman lands were divided up and Britain came in to rule Palestine.  Their office was at first in Augusta Victoria, but there was this very nice place on a hill to the south of the city with an excellent view so they built their main offices there.

Yehuda Avner, z’’l, former ambassador and author of the book The Prime Ministers, wrote an article about David Ben-Gurion meeting with the British High Commissioner at their headquarters in 1937.  The British wanted Ben-Gurion to stop bringing in Jews, especially from Germany.  He felt there were plenty here already and would Ben-Gurion just halt the inflow temporarily?  Well, you can imagine how that conversation went.  And it gives you a brief insight into the fact that Jews in Europe were getting into a position of having nowhere to go.  (It’s an interesting article and worth a moment to read.)

When Jerusalem was Hebraizing names for neighborhoods they translated Government House into Hebrew and got Armon HaNatziv (the literal translation is Palace of the Governor).

In 1948, the UN was looking for an office and somehow decided to take over the British offices.  So today, the UN Observer Headquarters is on Armon HaNatziv, also known as the Hill of Evil Counsel. According to their website, though, the place is located on Jabel Mukaber – where a caliph shouted Allahu Akbar.

With the blatant bias of various UN and UN committee decisions recently (I’ve discussed the UNESCO decisions here and here), it seems like a pretty odd coincidence indeed that the UN headquarters in Jerusalem would be on a hill with so much difficult history.

(Christian sources come from here; various internet searches led me to other information; some information is just from my own knowledge; but any mistakes are my own.)

In the Beginning, Again

Monday was the final day of the holidays, Thursday it rained for the first time this autumn, and tomorrow we’ll change our clocks.  Autumn has arrived in Israel.  I do miss the changing colors of the season, but Israel has its own charms.  Fall and winter are greener and brighter (and wetter!) than summer.  Spring, as everywhere, is the season of awakening.

We’ve come to a new year with Rosh Hashana, we cleared our spiritual account with Yom Kippur, we reminded ourselves that everything is temporary during Sukkot, and as a final preparation for the upcoming year, we start reading the Torah again from the beginning.


Every week a portion of the Torah is read along with a relevant passage from the Prophets.  The Torah refers only to the Five Books of Moses; the whole of the Bible is referred to as the Tanakh, an acronym of Torah, Nevi’im (Prophets), Ketuvim (Writings).  The Torah portion is read aloud in the synagogue and studied during the week.  This goes on for the whole year and at the end of Sukkot, they begin again.

A cynic’s view is that you have to have something to do every week.  But the more philosophical view is that every time you read the passages, you learn something new or have a new insight or see in a new way how it applies in your life.  The value is in the process of learning, not in the reading itself.

The Torah in the synagogue is a scroll.  It’s hand-written with a quill on parchment by a specially trained person who writes the Torah with full focus, intention, and concentration.  It really is a work of art.  However, unlike a book, you can’t just flip back to the beginning.  The most interesting and amazing Simhat Torah (the name of this holiday) I spent was at Hillel.  We unrolled the whole Torah and looked at the beauty of this work of art unrolled completely on several long tables.  We sang some joyous songs and then we rolled it back up.  The tradition is to read the last words of the Torah and then after it’s rolled back up, read the beginning lines.  It’s feels less like an end and a beginning, but rather like the completion of a circle.

“Circle of Life” – The Lion King (yep, I went there)



In other events that happen over and over, UNESCO had another vote this week on the resolution on the Old City of Jerusalem and the “Al-Aqsa Mosque/Al-Haram Al-Sharif.”  This version still does not use the phrase “The Temple Mount” and removed the phrase saying that Jerusalem was important to the three monotheistic religions.

It passed, again.  I don’t think that reading and re-reading the text will give us any new understandings of the intent of the document.  However, keeping with the theme of circles, we can be sure that “what goes around comes around.”

Jerusalem Lovefest, I mean, Parade

After last week’s UNESCO vote, the Jerusalem Parade is extremely well-timed.  There will be a new vote on the UNESCO resolution, but it feels like rumblings rather than outright condemnations of an obviously biased document.

During Sukkot, Jerusalem is filled with both Jewish and Christian tourists from all around the world.  The streets are filled with families, restaurants have sukkahs (booths) outside, and there is a festival atmosphere throughout the city during the whole week.

For many years, I thought the parade was primarily a Christian thing, but it turns out that the first parade was in 1955 during Passover.  Then after 1980 when the Christian Embassy was founded in Jerusalem the parade evolved into what we have today.  The parade begins with Israeli groups – banks, insurance companies, army units, corporate groups, and others – and then the Christian groups from around the world join in.

The Christian groups are often singing songs in Hebrew to show their support.  Not being Hebrew-speakers they tend to choose the ones with simple and repetitive lyrics, but strong messages.  “Am Israel, Am Israel, Am Israel, Chai!” (The people of Israel live!) “Havenu Shalom Aleichem” (We wish you peace) “Ya’aseh Shalom, Shalom Aleinu v’Al Kol Israel” (May He bring peace, peace to us and all Israel).

Here are a few pictures from the parade.  I chose them based on the ones that turned out rather than any other criteria.

The Chinese took the phrase “Go Big or Go Home” to heart and had the biggest flags and banners and also brought along the Ark of the Covenant with trumpeting angels.


Hungary had its own group, but the Gipsy nation came on its own.

All the northern countries were represented, but these were two signs I caught.

All around the world is not an exaggeration:  Fiji, New Zealand, Bolivia, Thailand, Taiwan, Zambia, Kenya, South Africa, France, Germany, UK, Ireland, US, Canada, and more and more and more.

My wish for this holiday season is that all these people would call their UN representatives and let UNESCO know that they came to Israel to strengthen their Jewish and Christian connections to the land.

*Note:  Christians are not allowed to proselytize in Israel.  They are not permitted to hand out any religious material at all.  So this event is a surprisingly non-political, non-religious event that is very simply an expression of support and love for Israel the country, not its government or policies.

UNESCO Rewrites History

Mom told me a story once about her mother and how she had once been a history teacher in the Soviet Union.  She was helping her students prepare for a big exam and reminding them how a certain general was a “hero of the people.”  During the week of preparations, this general became an “enemy of the people,” so all the questions about him were changed to reflect his new status.  Grandma was disillusioned and changed careers to become an accountant.

That was the Soviet Union then.  This is now.

This week a UNESCO resolution is trying to rewrite history and suggest that Jews and Christians have no connection to the Old City of Jerusalem.  I mentioned the resolution in a blog post in July and discussed very briefly the postmodern idea of “narratives of history” in May.

The main problem (among many others) with the resolution is that it purposely eliminates or minimizes the Jewish names of the holy sites:  Al-Aqsa Mosque/Al-Haram Al-Sharif is never referred to as the Temple Mount and Buraq Plaza is the name for the “Western Wall Plaza” (quotation marks in original).  Full text is reprinted here.

The “Buraq Plaza” of 1916-1917 – not much of a plaza and not a Muslim site.



The Office of Foreign Affairs posted this on their Facebook page to highlight the changing of history aspect of the purposeful elimination of names.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu issued a statement that said:

To say Israel has no connection to the Temple Mount is like saying that China has no connection to the Great Wall of China or that Egypt has no connection to the pyramids. With this absurd decision, UNESCO has lost the modicum of legitimacy it had left.

And he followed it up with this tweet.

In my opinion, the most worrisome thing is the vote.  The resolution was approved in committee 24 for and 6 against, with 26 abstentions.  The countries that stood up to vote against this resolution were: Estonia, Germany, Lithuania, The Netherlands, United Kingdom and United States.  I applaud their strength!  I wonder about the countries that abstained.  They chose not to vote yes, but could not bring themselves to vote no.  Abstaining doesn’t mean they get to pretend this resolution didn’t happen.

UNESCO’s Director-General issued a lukewarm statement mentioning that all three monotheistic religions have a connection to the Old City, but did not cancel or condemn the resolution.

In response, Israel’s government has suspended cooperation with UNESCO at this time.  And rightly so.

Being a UNESCO Heritage Site used to be a badge of honor.  But if UNESCO can vote on and pass resolutions that skew and twist history to suit a particular agenda, doesn’t it call into question all of UNESCO’s decisions and resolutions?  Is UNESCO a new totalitarian regime telling us what history is?

How History will remember

There’s a theory that the same amount of bad things are happening in the world as there ever were, but now that we live in a global village and the media coverage is instantaneous, we simply hear about it sooner and more often.  I’m not sure that is true, but I do wish that we would demand that the media stop functioning on a 24-hour news cycle that drops stories as soon as something bloodier comes along.  The terror attack in Nice is today’s top story, but how quickly will we move to the next thing?  France plans to mourn for 3 days.  Will we?  Or will something else catch our attention?


Headline scanning means that we’ll only catch the big stories and so seemingly little stories get swept aside.  I imagine that very few people know that the UNESCO World Heritage Committee is meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, this week.

I am not an expert on the workings of UNESCO and this is not meant to be deep research.  I just want to point out a few facts and try to put them into context.  I’ve provided links at the end of the post.

UNESCO – United Nations Education, Science and Cultural Organization – was on the news radar in Israel in April because of a draft resolution that subtly denied Jewish connections to the Temple Mount and the Western Wall.  The headlines were pretty bold, but when I went to the document itself (which no news site linked to) it refers to Israel as “Israel, the Occupying Power,” does not once use the term “Temple Mount” but only “Al-Aqsa Mosque/Al-Haram Al-Sharif,” and mentions the “Buraq Plaza ‘Western Wall Plaza’.”  This draft didn’t pass – of 58 votes, 33 were for, 17 abstentions, 6 against (the other 2 were not in attendance).  Another draft related to the Old City and its Walls uses the same terminology, except refers to “Buraq Plaza (Western Wall Plaza).”

At the conference this week the item was pulled off the agenda at the last minute because of the uncertainty of the votes and it’s pretty unlikely that the resolutions will pass.  So, no big deal, right? Well, I’m not so sure about that.

The present is the future’s past

As a historian, I’m thinking about researchers going through documents at some unspecified time in the future.  Let’s say, at least 150 years from now.  UNESCO doesn’t decide what history is, but as the arbiter of World Heritage Sites and a name that suggests global neutrality, how will historians see these documents in the future?

First of all, if you go through the documents, you will find references to Jerusalem in the “Arab States” section of the agenda.  Other geographical designations are Europe and North America, Latin America and Caribbean, Africa, Asia and Pacific.

Screenshot agenda
As an academic editor, I know that quotation marks are used for quotations, of course, but they are also used as a substitute for the words so-called, which suggest a distance from the term.  Above, I’m using quotation marks because I’m quoting the text.  Within the resolution, the only reason to use quotation marks (also known as scare quotes, I don’t know why) is to say the so-called Western Wall Plaza.  If you say the words so-called in front of anything, your voice naturally picks up a sarcastic tone.  It’s even more sarcastic if you make air quotes with your fingers.  So here we have a UNESCO draft resolution that gives Arabic names with capital letters, but Jewish names with quotation marks or in parentheses.

How we got from there to here

There may be those that say, “Well, you know, that big golden dome is up there now and possession is 9/10ths of the law.”  Since the Jordanian Waqf administers the site and forbids Jews to pray there, I think that point is moot.  Even subtly rejecting any Jewish connection is simply changing history.  Before Islam, there were two Jewish Temples that stood on that site.  Without the Temple, Jesus would have had no place to overturn the tables and attack the money lenders.  Titus’ Arch in Rome would have no story to tell.  Millions of Jews coming to Israel to visit a bunch of stones, a retaining wall actually, would also seem a bit weird if they lack a connection.

The point I want to make is that it matters now and today how we respond.  US Jews were very happy to have a mixed-gender prayer site created at the Western Wall, but in the big picture isn’t it a more important issue if UNESCO votes to effectively erase the Jewish connection to any part of the area?  Can UNESCO be allowed to vote on the narrative of history? If we decide to lay out narratives next to each other, we can say that there is indeed a Muslim connection to the site (third holiest site), but we must say that there is a Jewish (most important site) and Christian (Jesus’ final days) connection to the site.

What will our researcher find 150 years in the future when looking through the UNESCO documents? I hope she finds a multi-colored patchwork of truth and not obvious propaganda.

Epilogue:  The UNESCO response to Daesh (ISIS/ISIL) bombing parts of Palmyra, a World Heritage Site in Syria, was that the head of UNESCO did declare the acts war crimes, but after UNESCO experts went in, their preliminary finding was that it wasn’t as bad as they thought.  A language comparison of the two resolutions is enlightening.  Daesh is just Daesh, not an Occupying Power or anything else.  Their actions are condemned, but Israel’s actions are strongly condemned, firmly deplored, deeply decried, and disapproved.

Draft resolution on the Al-Haram Al-Sharif and its surroundings.

Decision on Jerusalem and its Walls from 2015.

Report on the vote in April.

Possible revision to the drafts.

An in-depth review of the issue.

Draft resolution on Palmyra.

Press release on Palmyra.