I am not stealing the title of my article from Amos Oz. In his beautifully written dark tale, the evil hill is the element around which a family’s unraveling is explained. His story takes place during the British Mandate period, just after WWII, May 1946 to be precise. There is much anxiety about the admission of Jewish refugees to the land of Palestine, Britain permitting far too few. His Majesty’s Government is trying to play both sides of the conflict, expecting to come out on top, politically and monetarily. Think of Sykes/Picot; think of White Paper; think of Peel Commission. Meantime, according to Col. Richard Meinerzhagen in his Middle East Diary, 1917-1956, in an entry for May 1946: “Thousands of Jews are still in camps in Germany under German guards.” The High Commissioner for Palestine, the highest-ranking officer representing the Great Britain, resides in Government House, actually a palace, which is situated on the Hill of Evil Counsel. And Oz’s characters receive an invitation to a ball being given by him.
This was not the first time the hill was aligned with evil thought, decision, and action. The name and the nature of any counsel or discussion on the hill goes back much further than that.
For example, it is a legend that the house of the chief priest at the time of Jesus was on that hill, a legend that may have arisen in the Byzantine Period. There is a passage in the New Testament Gospel of Mark that reads: “the chief priests and elders met in the court of the high priest... and they plotted together to seize Jesus by stealth.” It is thought that at one time there may have been a monastery or convent on the location, dedicated to this Apostle Mark.
A passage further on states that Judas Iscariot went to the chief priests and asked what they’d give him to put the finger on his friend. (He was one of Jesus’ disciples.) Thirty pieces of silver, they said, and so shortly after the Passover Seder (the Easter Last Supper), Judas led the high priests’ henchmen, with their swords and clubs, out to where Jesus was praying. He singled out the man by kissing him, the infamous “Kiss of Judas.”
The Hill of Evil Counsel is south and east of the Old City, located at the southeast corner of the Valley of Hinnom (Gehenna in Greek), and is now considered part of the Mount Zion Region of Jerusalem.
From Zion Gate on the south wall of the city, the landscape stretches down into the valley, up to a 16-acre hilltop sporting pines and cypresses, and blends into the neighborhood of Abu Tor, once known as Jebel Deir Abu Tor, meaning mountain of the monastery of Abu Tor. So the tribute to Mark may be true.
Now the area is one of the affluent neighborhoods that developed in the late 1890s, of mansions built mostly by affluent Christian Arabs, including Muslims and a contingent of Jews, established in 1898. Abu Tor was one of those communities split by the red and green crayons used by Generals Moshe Dayan and Abdullah el-Tell on that fateful “ceasefire” day in 1947. There is certainly an interesting array of archaeological finds on the site, including a cistern that appears to have been made into a sanctuary.
From the hill the view of the rest of Jerusalem in several directions is outstanding. The High Commissioner’s Residence, actually Government House, was one of several structures undertaken by the British Mandate from 1928 to 1937. Others were the Central Post Office, St. Andrews Church, and Government Printing House. Much of the other public building of the time was initiated and financed by Jewish organizations.
There is strong evidence in the Tanach that there is indeed a hill just outside Jerusalem’s ancient walls that could have been named for the negativity of the decisions taken there. It was apparently where Absalom, King David’s son, was advised to overthrow his father’s kingdom and take the throne for himself. It didn’t work out.
But a generation later, Chapter 11 of the First Book of Kings reads: “At that time Solomon did build a shrine for Chemosh the abomination of Moab, in the mount that is before Jerusalem, and for Moloch the abomination of the children of Ammon. And he did the same for all the foreign wives who offered and sacrificed to their gods. And the Lord was angry with Solomon.” I’ll bet He was!
In the Nevi’im section of the Tanach, the Prophet Jeremiah reports, in Chapter 19: “Thus saith the Lord of Hosts, the G-d of Israel: I am going to bring such disaster upon this place that the ears of all who hear about it will tingle.” Once begun, the disobedience mutates.
In Chapter 32 Jeremiah points out the Lord’s further words: “and they built shrines of Baal, which are in the Valley of Ben-hinnom, where they offered up their sons and daughters. This place shall no longer be called Topheth or Ben-hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter.” It certainly is not a stretch to imagine that a valley of slaughter might have a place of horrible decisions right next door.
The High Commissioner’s House was a beautiful structure. A hexagon theme was prominent in the entrance, in the High Commissioner’s apartment, and in the gardens. Many elements from both east and west were incorporated into the design – Arabic, Byzantine and Bauhaus. When the British exited the country, they handed off the building to the International Committee of the Red Cross, (an organization, incidentally, that finally admitted the Israeli Magen David Adam in 2006 after 60 years of negotiation). From this dwelling place on the nefarious hill, the Red Cross worked to protect civilians on all sides, for a few years, until the organization gave it to the United Nations!
Here’s where we might change the word “counsel” to “council”: the Council of League of Nations confirmed the British Mandate over Palestine and Transjordan in July 1922, and it came into force slightly over a year later. Transjordan? Yes, it is interesting to note that when the Peel Commission recommended two states in Palestine, an Arab state in Palestine had already been created. The British had established the Emirate of Trans-Jordan as a Protectorate on April 11, 1921, and the state’s independence was formalized in 1946.
On May 14, 1948, the State of Israel was born. By this time the UN was stationed in Jerusalem on the Hill of Evil Counsel. Still in 1948, the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization, UNTSO, was established, based then as it is now in Jerusalem. It is not an armed force, and serves more as a platform for other operations in the region.
In 1994 it established the Office of the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process. There is the Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, and the Department of Political and Peace Building Affairs, DPPA. Important to know: the assistant secretary-general is the principal member of the Middle East Quartet.
Interestingly, the Middle East Quartet consists of the US, the Russian Federation, the European Union, and the UN. This so called “key mechanism” was established in 2003. The UN in Jerusalem employs 65 paid staff at salaries ranging from $50,000 to $165,000. Volunteers are also welcomed. The confirmed 2022 entry-level salary, meaning for junior managers, is $80,000. No doubt this is good news for graduates who have one of those brand new university degrees in peace building.
By the way, the UN has never bought the building they are in, from anyone. Its location was in the demilitarized zone until 1967 when Israel reunited Jerusalem. Israel has been paid neither rent nor taxes. There was somewhat of a struggle over this, as not being legitimate, but Israel buckled, and puts up with it even today. ■