A man accused of smashing two second-century Roman statues at the Israel Museum was experiencing "Jerusalem Syndrome", according to his lawyers.
The 40-year-old tourist from the US was arrested following the alleged destruction of two statues, including one of the goddess Athena. After questioning, the Israeli police say that the man broke the statues as they were "idolatrous and contrary to the Torah", while lawyers for the defense say that the man was experiencing Jerusalem syndrome at the time of the incident.
Jerusalem syndrome refers to a set of religion-themed psychotic symptoms experienced by people visiting Jerusalem, a holy city for followers of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.
Though not described as its own recognized condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), enough patients have presented with symptoms that match the syndrome that there is a dedicated facility in Jerusalem – the Kfar Shaul Mental Health Centre – which specializes in treating and researching the condition. Between 1980 and 1993, 1,200 tourists were referred to the facility.
Jerusalem Syndrome encompasses an array of symptoms and behaviors, documented in a review in 2018. Usually (though not in all cases), patients have a prior psychiatric condition, as was the case for one American tourist who began to identify with the Biblical figure Samson.
"Eventually, he was overcome by a compulsion to come to Israel in order to move one of the giant stone blocks forming the Western (Wailing) Wall which, in his opinion, was not in the right place. On arriving at the Western Wall, he attempted to move one of the stones," a team of psychiatrists wrote in the review. "His actions instigated a terrible commotion, culminating in police intervention and his placement in the hospital of the Kfar Shaul Mental Health Centre."
After being challenged on his identity – against the usual advice – he broke a window and fled through it, returning only after a nurse found him at a bus stop and told him he had proved himself to have Samson's qualities. After a course of antipsychotic medication, the man was able to return home.
The syndrome always takes on a religious aspect. Occasionally, they arrive as part of a religious group ("we know of three groups currently attempting to ‘create’ a red heifer based on writings contained in the Old Testament", the review notes) but largely it happens to individuals who have arrived alone, or with family.
In the strangest form of the syndrome, visitors with no prior psychiatric conditions arrive in Jerusalem (or elsewhere in Israel) and have a psychotic episode, before recovering spontaneously and returning home to their usual lives.
In this version, religious patients usually attempt to slip away from their group or family, develop an obsession with cleaning, and manufacture their own garments, "often with the aid of hotel bed-linen, of a long, ankle-length, togalike gown, which is always white".
Shouting and singing religious texts is common, as well as visiting a holy site and delivering a sermon whilst there. In this type, developed by 42 patients between 1980 and 1993, hallucinations are rare, and individuals tend to remember their own identity rather than believe themselves to be religious figures. Treatment of this kind of Jerusalem Syndrome is generally distancing the patient from Jerusalem, and returning them to their families.
Unfortunately, in this type, patients are often reluctant (or too embarrassed) to talk about the episode once they are out of it. Nevertheless, doctors involved in treating the condition have a theory, similar in a way to "Paris Syndrome".
"Those who succumb to type III of the Jerusalem syndrome are unable to deal with the concrete reality of Jerusalem today – a gap appears between their subconscious idealistic image of Jerusalem and the city as it appears in reality," the team writes. "One might view their psychotic state and, in particular, the need to preach their universal message as an attempt to bridge the gap between these two representations of Jerusalem."
The review is published in the British Journal of Psychiatry.