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Broken Roman statue. Source: Dmitry / Adobe Stock.

Tourist Smashes ‘Blasphemous’ Roman Statues Citing Jerusalem Syndrome as Defense


A violent American tourist has been arrested for destroying ancient Roman statues at a museum in Jerusalem. In his defence, the man is claiming he suffered from “Jerusalem Syndrome,” an alleged psychiatric condition in which a person visiting Jerusalem is overcome by religious-themed delusions.

The Jewish American vandal smashed priceless works of art in the Israel Museum, including an 1,800-year-old sculpture of the head of Athena and a statue of a griffin holding the wheel of fate of the Roman god Nemesis. Israel Police told AP News that the act of vandalism “raised questions about the safety of Israel’s priceless collections” and that it has caused heritage officials to consider why there have been a rise in similar attacks in Jerusalem.

What makes this story stand out, is that the vandal is claiming to have suffered from “Jerusalem Syndrome.” However, courtrooms seldom accept such an excuse to let blatant criminals off the hook.

The tourist destroyed an ancient griffin statue inside the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Credit: Israel Police.

The tourist destroyed an ancient griffin statue inside the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Credit: Israel Police.

When Delusions Strike Out

The attack occurred on Friday, October 6 2023, and Israeli police promptly arrested the American tourist. Police identified the suspect as “a radical 40-year-old Jewish American tourist.” In his defence, the man claimed to have smashed the statues because he deemed them “idolatrous and contrary to the Torah,” as reported by AP. However, contrary to this initial admission of guilt, Nick Kaufman, the man’s defence lawyer, has denied that his client destroyed the arts through religious fanaticism. Rather, he claims the man had suffered from a supposed mental disorder known as “Jerusalem syndrome”.

When people attribute outcomes or events to ghosts, demons, or supernatural entities, it is often referred to as "supernatural or paranormal attribution." This means assigning causality or blame to supernatural forces, rather than finding natural or scientifically explainable factors. “Jerusalem syndrome,” is claimed by some to be a form of cognitive disorientation suffered by the devout when visiting the center of Christian, Jewish and Muslim faith systems. It is claimed that this condition causes people “to believe they are figures from the Bible,” according to AP News.

One of the Roman statues smashed by the US tourist in the Israel Museum. Photo: Israel Police.

One of the Roman statues smashed by the US tourist in the Israel Museum. Photo: Israel Police.

Jerusalem Syndrome: A Mask for Violence?

What is perhaps most revealing in this story, is that the accused has not yet undergone a psychiatric evaluation, yet his lawyer has already diagnosed his client’s condition as “Jerusalem Syndrome.” Now consider all the recent reports about “radical ultra-Orthodox Jews spitting and assaulting Christian worshippers.” At the beginning of the year, AP reported that Jews had defaced Christian graves in a Jerusalem cemetery, and in February, another Jewish American tourist attacked a statue of Jesus at a Christian pilgrimage site in Jerusalem.

Perhaps not coincidentally, this display of “Jerusalem Syndrome” occurred on the Jewish harvest festival holiday, Sukkot, which ended yesterday, at sunset. In response to the man’s actions, the Israel Museum said Thursday’s vandalism was “a troubling and unusual event,” and that the organization “condemns all forms of violence.” The Israeli government have attributed the act “to Jewish iconoclasm in obedience to early prohibitions against idolatry,” and not to the alleged Jerusalem Syndrome.

Man who claims to be a Messiah in Tel Aviv, 2010 (Jacek Proszyk / CC by SA 4.0)

Man who claims to be a Messiah in Tel Aviv, 2010 (Jacek Proszyk / CC by SA 4.0)

A Syndrome That Targets Offending Statues

One of the destroyed statues depicts Athena, the goddess of wisdom in Ancient Greek mythology. While Athena herself is not specifically offensive to Orthodox Jews, what is of concern to followers of any monotheistic Abrahamic religion, is the veneration or worship of any deity outside of their own tradition. Judaism is strictly monotheist, emphasizing the belief in Yahweh [one god] and the worship, or even the acknowledgment, of other gods or goddesses contradicts their fundamental beliefs.

Putting Jerusalem Syndrome to the side, this was an act of iconoclasm and violence, similar to the way in which ISIS has adhered to an extreme interpretation of Islam that rejects the use of images or statues in religious practices. This view comes from the early days of Islam when Prophet Muhammad advocated against the worship of idols and imagery that aligned with the historical Islamic concept of iconoclasm.

ISIS, and the American tourist, both view the worship or veneration of statues, artifacts, and cultural heritage as a form of idolatry. Therefore, destroying such statues is a way to eliminate what are perceived as false idols, and a return to the original form of monotheistic worship.

An Explanation of Hysteria

Eli Escusido, director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, said the destruction of artifacts in the museum represents “a shocking case of the destruction of cultural values,” wherein cultural values “are being destroyed by religiously motivated extremists.” However, the criminal’s lawyer is sticking to his story: that the man suffered “Jerusalem Syndrome.”

Let us for a moment enter the future courtroom of this impending trial. The defence lawyer will no doubt point out that the 1989 book  City of Mirrors” describes Jerusalem Syndrome “as a form of hysteria, referred to as "fièvre Jérusalemienne," that was first ascribed by writer Felix Fabri in the 15th century. It might also be pointed out that the condition was first clinically described in the 1930s, by the famous Jerusalem psychiatrist, Heinz Hermann, who said some people visiting the Holy City “suffered hysteria, and delusions”.

A barefoot, robed man in Israel allegedly suffering from Jerusalem Syndrome. Source: Marcin Sochacki / CC by SA 4.0.

A barefoot, robed man in Israel allegedly suffering from Jerusalem Syndrome. Source: Marcin Sochacki / CC by SA 4.0.

Experts Refuse Jerusalem Syndrome

The defence lawyer will no doubt refer to a 2000 article in the British Journal of Psychiatry, Bar-El et al which claimed to have identified and described “a specific syndrome which emerges in tourists with no previous psychiatric history.” However, this claim was torn apart by scholars M. Kalian and E. Witztum who discovered that “nearly all of the tourists who demonstrated the described behaviours were mentally ill prior to their arrival in Jerusalem.”

If this fact is not enough to shatter the man’s claim that he was guided by supernatural agency, the prosecution might point out that of the tiny proportion of tourists alleged to have exhibited spontaneous psychosis after arrival in Jerusalem, not one of them “had been well prior to their arrival in the city.” This is to say, every one of them suffered mental health conditions before visiting Jerusalem, which were then unleashed in fits of violence against the icons of other religions.

Top image: Broken Roman statue. Source: Dmitry / Adobe Stock.

By Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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