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Jerusalem: The Jerusalem Syndrome

by Leah Abramowitz

The Western Wall is one of Israel's biggest tourist attractions with visitors streaming to its famous stones to pray, take photographs, participate in an IDF ceremony, attend a Bar Mitzvah or just to absorb some of the historic and spiritual atmosphere that permeates the ancient site.

Some of those drawn to the Wall are seeking a supernatural experience in the presence of such a religious place. Psychologists identify these people as having the "Jerusalem Syndrome." They include the "would-be" messiahs, misfits, misguided and the spiritually involved.

Those with the Jerusalem Syndrome are literally intoxicated by the Holy City - they revel in the special atmosphere of the Wall past midnight; they delight in the mystical aura they perceive there at night; their psyches are inflamed by the historical holiness in which they feel enveloped. Even though there are other places in Jerusalem which attract similar characters, the Wall remains their favorite, especially among Jews.

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.

Dr. Bar El noted that the Jerusalem Syndrome is similar to the "Florence Syndrome," identified by Italian psychiatrists who long ago noticed a tendency among tourists and visitors to that city to act in a bizarre and irrational fashion. In Florence, however, the phenomenon seems to be triggered by art works and the beauty of the city itself, rather than religion.

Another Jerusalem psychiatrist, Dr. Jordan Scher, claims that many disturbed people flock to the Holy City seeking the special spiritual atmosphere that imbues the capital, especially the Old City. "Jerusalem is flooded by messiahs; those who come to meet him, to wait for him or to settle the turmoil in their own souls.

These colourful characters at the Wall are not governed by canon or scripture. But they are drawn, as generations before them, to the spiritual centre of the universe, the hub of the three monotheistic religions. Some of these people, with problems, with extreme views and with otherworldly devotions may find themselves falling prey to this unique and still mainly incomprehensible phenomenon, the Jerusalem Syndrome.

Sources: Adapted from Ariel: The Israel Review of Arts and Letters - 1996/102, Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs