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Jerusalem Syndrome

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  • Jerusalem Syndrome

    Doing some sorting out I found, pushed into a corner of a bookcase, an interesting little book by J E Hanauer, Canon of St George's Cathedral in Jerusalem, who published it in 1907.

    It is a very interesting little collection entitled Folklore of the Holy Land Moslem, Christian, and Jewish. However, browsing through it once again I recall reading, following the disappearance in 2018 of a British Christian in the Negev Desert [] of a comment Hanauer made in the 1870s that "It is an odd fact that many Americans who arrive at Jerusalem are either lunatics or lose their mind thereafter.'

    The cases of Jerusalem Syndrome [JS] range from the delightfully endearing, to wit the Englishwoman in the 1930s who, having convinced herself that the Second Coming was imminent, took to climbing Mount Scopus every morning with a cup of tea to welcome Jesus on his return; to the positively dangerous when in 1969 barely two years after the Six Day War Australian Denis Michael Rohan set fire to the Al Aqsa Mosque believing God had told him to clean out the "abominations" and whose actions led to riots. He was found to be insane by an Israeli court and deported back to Australia.


    The Jerusalem Syndrome was first clinically identified by Dr. Yair Bar El, formerly director of the Kfar Shaul Psychiatric Hospital. Bar El studied 470 tourists who were referred for treatment between 1979 and 1993. On the basis of his work with these visitors, who had been declared temporarily insane, Bar El reached some fascinating conclusions.

    Of the 470 visitors from all over the world who were hospitalized, 66 percent were Jews, 33 percent were Christians and one percent had no known religious affiliation. Bar El is quick to point out that it is not only tourists who demonstrate behaviour that indicates the Jerusalem Syndrome; in fact local residents can be temporarily or permanently affected as well.

    The peak time for visitors who are "intoxicated" by the Holy City is, not surprisingly, during the holiday seasons - Christmas, Jewish High Holy days, Easter and Passover - or during the summer months of July and August. Bar El divides the patients into two broad categories: those with previous psychiatric histories and those with no previous psychiatric history.

    The pilgrim-tourists studied demonstrated remarkably similar patterns of disintegration and symptoms generally appeared on the second day of their stay in Jerusalem, when they began to feel an inexplicable nervousness and anxiety. If they came with a group or family they suddenly felt a need to be on their own and left the others. They would often begin to perform acts of purification, or cleansing, such as immersion in a mikva (ritual bath). Often the patients changed their clothes in an effort to resemble biblical figures, for example dressing in white robes, because most of them chose to identify themselves with a character from the New or Old Testament. This type of behaviour does not, of course, inevitably lead to hospitalization in a psychiatric ward. Indeed, most of those affected by the Jerusalem Syndrome do not cause any disturbance and are at worst a nuisance or a mild source of amusement. But a certain percentage of the people are severely disturbed and will often behave in a way that demands psychiatric intervention, at least temporarily.

    Sometimes the Jerusalem Syndrome victim will have definite religious goals, others have political inclinations. Some patients adopt magical health views or individual religious requirements, self-written prayers and idiosyncratic customs.

    An interesting sub-group consists of patients who have no previous psychiatric problems whatsoever. "Something just happened to me," is a common response when such tourists begin psychotherapy. Bar El believes that the shock of facing the earthly Jerusalem can cause a psychiatric reaction which helped bridge the reality with the dream city.

    An interesting paper written in 2000 [and now available online] details how the lead up to the millennium increased instances of this syndrome and the three distinct sub-types of its manifestations.

    However, as a short video on Youtube [] points out when interviewing a former member of Shin Bet, the delusions of Christians and Jews [given that this syndrome affects followers of those two religions] has possible dangerous implications and potential consequences for individuals to be manipulated and exploited by extremist groups.

    The video cites The Temple Mount Faithful group and interviews its founder Gershon Salomon wants to remove the mosque and who claims in the interview that "The support of American evangelists is important, even decisive, in this struggle to rebuild the Temple". As the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem notes "As to the reaction if the mosque is damaged, I cannot describe it".

    Delusions, possible psychosis, and religious fanaticism can make for a potentially lethal "cocktail".

    "It ain't necessarily so
    The things that you're liable
    To read in the Bible
    It ain't necessarily so

    Sportin' Life
    Porgy & Bess, DuBose Heyward, George & Ira Gershwin

  • #2
    I used to go to these hippy gatherings many years ago as a missionary with long hair a beard and teva sandles. That's the first time I heard the term Jerusalem syndrome. I never got the Jesus look down though... didn't have the right facial symmetry.


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