'Jerusalem Syndrome' Affects Visitors to Holy Land Sometimes the sights and sounds of Jerusalem can overwhelm believers and trigger psychotic episodes. Israeli psychiatrist Pesach Lichtenberg says that he has seen visitors and residents overcome with the belief they have a messianic mission.

'Jerusalem Syndrome' Affects Visitors to Holy Land

'Jerusalem Syndrome' Affects Visitors to Holy Land

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Sometimes the sights and sounds of Jerusalem can overwhelm believers and trigger psychotic episodes. Israeli psychiatrist Pesach Lichtenberg says that he has seen visitors and residents overcome with the belief they have a messianic mission.


At this time of year, Christians turn their thoughts toward Israel. The backdrop of countless pageants and nativity scenes is in the Holy Land. Tours of Jerusalem and other holy sites are popular as some believers make a pilgrimage to Israel.

But there's something else that sometimes happens at this time of year. A documented psychiatric disorder called Jerusalem syndrome.

To explain we've called Dr. Pesach Lichtenberg, the head of the psychiatric ward at the Herzog Hospital in Jerusalem.

Dr. Lichtenberg, thanks very much for joining us.

Dr. PESACH LICHTENBERG (Director, Division of Men's Psychiatry, Herzog Hospital): Pleasure. Thank you for having me.

SEABROOOK: So, sir, what is Jerusalem syndrome?

Dr. LICHTENBERG: Jerusalem syndrome is a phenomenon aware of people, pilgrims, tourists who come to Jerusalem are so overwhelmed by the sense of holiness here that something happens to them. And certain fantasies, redemption fantasies of making the world a better place overcome them, and they believe they have a messianic mission which they must fulfill, which can cause problems. And this can happen sometimes to people who showed no sign of any sort of mental illness before this. And more often it will happen to people who have already been diagnosed and have had problems with their adjustment before coming to Jerusalem.

SEABROOOK: So do these people suddenly think they are the messiah, they are Jesus or they are King David?

Dr. LICHTENBERG: They'll think they're the messiah or they'll think that they have some roles to play in the coming of the messiah. It's not only Christian (unintelligible) stressed, it can be Jews who will also be overtaken by the syndrome, and will feel that they now have a task to accomplish, and they want sometimes not to let anything stand in their way. And sometimes they will just sort of quietly wait for the imminent apocalypse.

SEABROOOK: Dr. Lichtenberg, is this a real psychiatric diagnosis or is this just something doctors describe?

Dr. LICHTENBERG: To a very serious extent, all psychiatric diagnosis are just something which doctors describe. And what actually is happening may have little to do with the labels that we give them. But this does happen that people come here and are overwhelmed, not only to Jerusalem. Incidentally it's been happen in Rome and certain other very emotionally and symbolically and religiously laden areas of the world. But certainly we see it happening in Jerusalem.

SEABROOOK: Dr. Lichtenberg, how do you treat someone with Jerusalem syndrome?

Dr. LICHTENBERG: We try to established rapport or lest(ph) with any psychosis, these seemingly deranged thoughts may actually be expressing some deep self-desires, which if person can integrate in a more healthy way into his being, it can have salutary effects. And if necessarily, we'll also give medication and to try to arrange for the person to be able to make his way back home or to make his way back to his tour group.

Every tour guide who comes to Israel as part of a multination tour in this area knows about the cases who they were fine in Turkey, they came to Israel, they have to be hospitalized, and then they'll going to fine when they get to Egypt. But something happens while they're here.

SEABROOOK: And since you live in downtown Jerusalem, do you encounter these sorts of people as you're walking down the street on a regular day?

Dr. LICHTENBERG: Jerusalem is a very colorful place. A lot going on, a lot of tension, and you don't have to be a psychiatrist to walk the streets and see them. Sometimes people are experiencing unusual things. Sometimes, this could be somebody holding the sign in the entrance to Jerusalem announcing the imminent redemption, and sometimes it could be a quiet merchant and who'll believe that he is not merely a descendant from King David as supposed to be, according to tradition, but he actually is King David. And this is part of the scenery over here, definitely.

SEABROOOK: Are you convinced they're all sick? I mean, maybe something is happening to them, how do we know?

Dr. LICHTENBERG: The first thing that we do is always give a benefit of the doubt. If someone has a story to tell and we'll listen. There have been a number of people I've met in the course of my career who managed to arouse a certain hope that, hey, maybe this is the real one. So far I've been disappointed. But we will listen to them before we reach any overhasty conclusions.

SEABROOOK: Dr. Pesach Lichtenberg is a psychiatrist at the Herzog Hospital in Jerusalem.

Sir, thanks very much for speaking with us.

Dr. LICHTENBERG: Thank you.

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