Making Sense of Jerusalem Syndrome

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In October 2023, a Jewish tourist from the United States began smashing ancient Roman artifacts in Jerusalem’s Israel Museum that he claimed were “blasphemous” and “against the Torah.” He damaged a bust of Athena and a mythological griffin statue. Police arrested the 40-year-old vandal who was dressed in “religious garb” and reciting pieties. His attorney maintains that the man was suffering from Jerusalem syndrome and therefore not in his right mind (Cascone, 2023).

Jerusalem syndrome is the acute onset of religious mania and delusions that occur in some people when they visit that holy city. They may wander about town dressed in robes and sandals or other religious garments. In some cases, the afflicted persons come to believe that they are a prophet, apostle, or biblical character such as Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Moses, or the Archangel Gabriel. When they return home, their mania typically subsides and they return to normal (Poleszczyk & Święcicki, 2013).

If this sounds too far-fetched to believe, consider that Yair Bar-El, a physician at Kfar Shaul Hospital in Jerusalem, first identified Jerusalem syndrome in 1982. He documented an astounding 470 cases of tourists who temporarily succumbed to Jerusalem-induced psychosis. Since then, this syndrome has become well-known in that city’s emergency rooms, psychiatric wards, and police precincts. Typically, a few dozen cases manifest each year. Cases tend to spike around religious holidays, including Passover, Easter, and Christmas (Poleszczyk & Święcicki, 2013).

Three Types of Jerusalem Syndrome

Type I consists of people with a history of psychological disorder(s) who visit Jerusalem in a state of religious fervor. This group includes people who believe they are a biblical character (one case involved a schizophrenic man who thought he was Samson); those who arrive in the city “on a mission from God” and intend to act on it; and those who believe that they will experience a miraculous healing in Jerusalem (Poleszczyk & Święcicki, 2013).

Type II includes people who manifest an obsessive-compulsive devotion to religion. While most Jerusalem syndrome sufferers contract it individually, people with a Type II diagnosis usually come to Israel in groups and manifest symptoms as a group. They can be seen at holy sites praying, preaching, or chanting in a demonstrative or exaggerated manner. Disinterested bystanders may perceive them as religious extremists (Poleszczyk & Święcicki, 2013).

Type III is made up of people without significant psychological problems and with stable lives. They typically arrive in Jerusalem as ordinary tourists without any preconceived agenda or excessive devotion. They fall victim gradually – first, by becoming awed, then anxious, then obsessive, and so on until they lapse into religious mania and delusions (Poleszczyk & Święcicki, 2013).


  • A 62-year-old woman and her husband arrived from Poland with a tour group. Shortly after arriving she began displaying bizarre delusions and behaviors. She licked floors and flagellated herself, claiming to be demon-possessed. At a religious site she offered water to strangers, telling them it was wine. She had experienced a brief psychotic episode 20 years earlier, but since then had led a normal and productive life (Poleszczyk & Święcicki, 2013).
  • A 25-year-old American man underwent a religious conversion after watching a TV evangelist. As months passed, he became increasingly fervent in his religious beliefs. After two years, he became convinced that God wanted him to commit the penultimate act of religious sacrifice — self-castration. He further believed that it was important for him to accomplish the genital excision in Jerusalem. He visited the city with the intention of exploring various holy sites and then removing his reproductive parts. As he attempted the bloody deed, a friend intervened and stopped the castration, but a visit to the emergency room was still necessary. From there he was discharged to a psychiatric ward. (Zislin, Katz & Raskin, 2002).
  • A 35-year-old man from the United States joined a church, whereupon someone there told him that “God had called him.” He interpreted this to mean that he had been tasked with a divine mission. After praying and reading the Bible for a time, he claimed to have experienced visions. Based on these visions, he decided to go to Jerusalem and “raise Hebrews from the dead as Jesus did.” He remained in the city for six years, never achieving any resurrections. During that time he became more reclusive and his religious beliefs became more eccentric and divergent from mainstream Christianity (van der Haven, 2008.).

Psychosis Essential Reads

The recent and ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine has focused the world’s attention on that troubled region. Especially at this time of year, when aspirations for peace and goodwill permeate our traditions and rituals, it’s worthwhile to remember the common reverence that Jerusalem holds for Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. For some, it holds so much reverence that devotion gives way to delusions.

© Dale Hartley

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