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Chosen in Jerusalem

Rachel Ginsberg

Walking through the ancient streets of theHolyCity, you have a pretty good chance of bumping into someone who thinks he’s messiah, or at least claims to have received a transmission that he’s a central player in the Redemption. It might be a Jew hanging around the gates to theTempleMounttrying to figure out how he should bring his sacrifice, or a Christian tourist walking around theOldCitywrapped in the hotel’s bed sheet as he babbles prophecies to passersby.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

old cityWhat is it about Jerusalem that turns people into self-proclaimed messiahs and incarnated prophets?


 It could be the man in the Israelite tunic with the flowing beard holding up a placard at the entrance toJerusalemwarning of the looming Armageddon. It could be the Christian tourist walking around theOldCitywrapped toga-style in his hotel’s bed sheet, proclaiming his newfound identity as a prophet-incarnate to any passerby who will listen. It could be the young man in Chassidic dress hanging around one of the gates to theTempleMountwaiting to take action as per the instructions he believes he’s received from Above.

Walking through the winding alleyways ofJerusalem’sOldCity, you have a pretty good chance of bumping into a self-proclaimed "messiah", incarnated prophet, or Davidic inheritor. What these people have in common is loosely defined as “Jerusalem Syndrome,” a type of religious mania where tourists – or even longtimeJerusalemresidents – become so overwhelmed with the spiritual symbols and power of theHolyCitythat they dissociate from reality and believe themselves to be biblical figures or hand-picked emissaries for a Divine redemptive mission.

In popular articles about Jerusalem Syndrome, the scenario might involve a salesman fromNewarkor a housewife fromKansas– regular Americans with regular lives – on a tour group headed forIsrael. Once the salesman hitsJerusalem, he suddenly begins to exhibit extreme religious behaviors, separating from his group and instead spending his days in prayer, fasting, refusing to bathe (or, conversely, bathing excessively for purification purposes). Then, when the Voices enter his head, he might start to babble about his divine mission, about the imminent Apocalypse, and how he has been ordained to spearhead the redemption. He’s harmless, but the hotel manager doesn’t want a messiah ranting prophecies in his lobby (bad for business — not to mention those missing bed sheets), and has him carted away to Kfar Shaul or Herzog Hospital, the city’s two psychiatric facilities. The tour group picks him up on the way home, and once he’s out ofJerusalemand in his familiar environment again, he settles back into reality.

Jerusalem Syndrome was first defined by an Israeli psychiatrist named Heinz Herman in the 1930s, who described a large variety of extreme and excited behaviors and anxiety states exhibited by some visitors to Jerusalem. One of his cases involved an Englishwoman who was so convinced of the imminent Redemption that she climbed to the top of MountScopusevery morning with a cup of tea to welcome the Redeemer. More recently, writing in the British Journal of Psychiatry, Dr. Yair Bar-El and his colleagues at theKfarShaulMentalHealthCenter inJerusalem described three types of disturbed tourists. There are those with a psychotic history who feel divinely called to Jerusalem, some thinking they are a messiah or a prophet; those who are non-psychotic eccentrics who get triggered by the religious intensity of the city; and otherwise normal folk who have an intense temporary psychotic episode.

While Jerusalem Syndrome doesn’t exist as a diagnostic entity in any official list of psychiatric diagnoses, “it’s something people speak about because it has a lot of interest,” says Professor Pesach Lichtenberg, director of men’s psychiatry atJerusalem’sHerzogHospitaland lecturer at theHebrewUniversity. But Dr. Lichtenberg, who has been interviewed extensively on Jerusalem Syndrome and – receiving dozens of Jerusalem Syndrome cases a year — is considered somewhat of a world expert on the phenomenon, says the standard scenario is actually a bit of an urban legend.

“You hear the stories about how during his week inTurkeyeverything was wonderful, during his week inJerusalemthe guy gets checked into Herzog, they pick him up on the way out and after a week inEgypteverything is fine again. This is the story that makes good press, but I’m not sure how accurate it is,” Dr. Lichtenberg explains. “Are there people who come toIsraelcompletely normal and become so bedazzled by the holiness that they suddenly become messianically psychotic? The answer is, probably not. People do sometimes become temporarily psychotic, but most of the people who walk around wrapped in the hotel bed sheets have been ill in the past.”

Furthermore, Dr. Lichtenberg stresses that although much media attention is focused on Christian pilgrims, Jerusalem Syndrome is applied to anyone who has delusional redemptive fantasies, where an important element of that delusion is that it will unfold inJerusalem.

“Actually, there are probably a lot more Jews with it than Christians,” says the professor. “Most of my patients are Jews, and they are Israelis.”

So while some people might sayJerusalemis so infused with holiness that it makes otherwise sane people snap, others maintain thatJerusalemhas nothing to do with it. These people are psychologically challenged wherever they are.

“It seems that the truth is somewhere in the middle,” says Dr. Lichtenberg. “There is something aboutJerusalemthat, if people have an inclination to have a psychotic episode, the intensity of the city can sometimes be a magnet for that.”


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