The decline of Jerusalem Syndrome raises the question whether the phenomenon ever posed a threat
As the new millennium approached, fears arose that Christian doomsday groups and sufferers of the much-vaunted “Jerusalem Syndrome” could spark religiously inspired violence in the city.
In October 1999, Jerusalem police detained 21 members of the House of Prayer, an apocalyptic sect led by Brother David, a self-styled prophet from Syracuse, New York. It was the fourth time that year that the authorities cracked down on foreign religious groups for visa violations or threatening public safety.
Israel was criticized in the foreign press after deporting 26 Irish and Romanian tourists, most of them Roman Catholics affiliated with the Pilgrim House Foundation. An Interior Ministry spokeswoman called the group “an extreme Christian cult,” a remark that drew protests from the Irish ambassador to Israel.
Earlier that year, Israel deported a dozen followers of the Concerned Christians, a Denver-based group whose messianic leader Monte Kim Miller predicted that he would die in a bloody battle in the streets of Jerusalem. The group (including six children) was suspected of planning unspecified “extreme acts of violence” in an attempt to hasten the second coming of Jesus, Israeli police said at the time.
Brother David, known earlier as Ed Anderson, rented out rooms to like-minded Christians on the Mount of Olives in east Jerusalem, the spot where some Christians think Jesus will return to Earth.
Previously, he would often dress in haredi garb and evangelize in traditional Jewish neighborhoods. After his ultra-Orthodox neighbors tore up his apartment, he moved to the Mount of Olives in east Jerusalem for about four years.
“I ran into the guy from time to time. He was here for years but built nothing. He collected donations from abroad and gave them to Arabs. He was in Israel illegally, and brought it on himself,” says International Christian Embassy spokesman David Parsons.
“Brother David exploited the media attention to build his ministry. The guesthouse helped his business: Come and get a front row seat for the return of Jesus. There was a real concern that he would draw others.”
People afflicted by the so-called Jerusalem Syndrome suddenly imagine themselves to be biblical figures or feel compelled to start preaching on the streets of the city. The condition was first identified in 1982 by former Jerusalem district psychiatrist and director of the Kfar Shaul hospital, Dr. Yair Barel.
Sufferers usually believe they are Jesus, Moses, or the Virgin Mary, but several King Davids and at least one Mary Magdalene have also been recorded. While some sufferers arrive in Jerusalem with psychiatric conditions that are heightened (or triggered) by the city’s spiritual atmosphere, others have no history of mental problems, but are overcome by the urge to preach in public dressed in white robes – often bed sheets from their hotel.
The condition is usually temporary, affecting religious pilgrims – mostly Christian, but occasionally Jews – who begin to exhibit strange behavior while touring holy sites, sometimes proclaiming that they are ancient religious figures sent on a mission.
“The media exaggerated the syndrome. The issue was blown out of all proportions. A minimal number of tourists have been affected – it passes within a few days. It’s nothing,” says Amnon Ramon, a researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies.
“The perception was that thousands come down with this syndrome every year, [but] the embassy has encountered only three cases in 20 years, I have heard of about a dozen cases in two decades – it’s that rare,” says Parsons. “The Jews who get it are always Samson or David – strong characters. Christians are often Moses or Elijah, the witnesses. As soon as they’re back in their home setting, the symptoms disappear.”
“There’s no shortage of crazies who could do great damage,” warns Ramon. “These include Christian, Muslim, and Jewish zealots.
In the 1980s, the “Jewish Underground,” led by Yehuda Etzion, planned to sabotage the mosques atop the Temple Mount. Some view the Temple Mount Faithful led by Gershon Salomon as a potential threat to an already explosive situation.
While the influence of spiritual Islamic sects such as the Sufis has been overpowered by fanatical, often violent, Muslim groups and their affiliated terror cells, many of the Christian-affiliated cults appear to have drifted away from the city.
“There are no organized Christian cults left in Jerusalem, although there were all sorts of dreamers in the past. Israel’s tough visa policy since 2000 is hurting Christian institutions in the city, including churches,” Ramon notes.
Why have imported religious cults all but disappeared in the capital?
“The troubles of the past three and a half years have chased them away. They’re afraid to come to Isael,” says Parsons.
“The media attention in the lead-up to the millennium distorted the picture. The idea of all these Christian crazies was nonsense. They need to get off somewhere – Jerusalem gets a bad rap because they get drawn towards here. In the end, the media had egg on its face.”
Parsons notes that he saw a group of five or six German Christians in black garb who consider themselves hybrid Christian-Jews about a year ago, but they seem to have disappeared.
According to Parsons, over 1,000 ex-patriot Christians currently live in Israel, representing millions of mainstream Christians throughout the world. The International Christian Embassy staff and families numbers about 100.
“We’re dodging bus bombers just like everyone else. The Mormons have effectively shut down. They were posthumously baptizing Holocaust victims,” claims Parsons.
The Brigham Young University’s Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies is no longer accepting applications. A “special announcement” on the center’s Web site begins: “We are sorry to report that current circumstances in the Holy Land prevent us from going forward with our regular programs at this time We are not sure when we will be able to resume our regular programs of study.” Another group that appears to have diminished in recent years is “Jews for Jesus,” a messianic evangelistic mission committed to proclaiming “Y’shua” (salvation) to Jews.
Jews for Jesus arose out of the Californian hippy culture Jesus movement of the 1960s and early 1970s that also saw the birth of aggressive evangelistic organizations such as Campus Crusade for Christ and the Navigators. Jews for Jesus claim to have led as many as 300,000 Jews into messianic congregations.
While not endorsing their activities, Jews for Jesus promotes contact with extreme Jewish groups committed to rebuilding the Jewish Temple in place of the Muslim shrine, the Dome of the Rock.
Jews for Jesus compares Israel’s continued occupation of Palestinian territories with the United States’ claim to Texas, and believes in rebuilding the Jewish Temple and the reinstitution of animal sacrifices.
It appears that the authorities no longer perceive religious cults as constituting a threat to society.
“There has been a significant drop in reports of cult-like activity in recent years,” Jerusalem Police district spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby told In Jerusalem.
“In particular, we have received no complaints relating to the Satan cult in Jerusalem for a long time – in my opinion, the phenomenon was blown out of proportion,” Ben-Ruby says.
“We try to catch the youths one stage before they fall into these cults,” says Shabtai Amedi, head of the Jerusalem municipality’s Youth Advancement Department, “by patrolling both the city center and outlaying neighborhoods late into the night. It could be that there are fewer cultists in the city, but all sorts of groups like Jews for Jesus still prey on runaways, by providing food and clothing. They target troubled youths, and may be a dangerous alternative to accepted social frameworks. These groups are moving into peripheries – places like the Jerusalem forest and Dead Sea where such activities are far from sight.”
From Texas to Jerusalem
One of the most infamous cult leaders to pass through Jerusalem was David Koresh, who perished together with 74 of his followers following a 51-day standoff with FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) agents at Waco, Texas, in 1993. During the police siege at Waco, Koresh claimed to be Christ.
Koresh (born Vernon Howell in 1959) lived in the city for six months in 1985. He hailed from a Seventh Day Adventist family, and led the Branch Davidian offshoot group. (The Adventists belong to the apocalyptic Millerite movement that has been predicting the imminent end of the world for more than 150 years.)
Koresh believed in a literal interpretation of the Book of Revelation: In chapter seven of the Book of Revelation, John says that he saw 144,000 people standing on Mount Zion. He reportedly once measured the Temple Mount to see whether 144,000 people could actually fit in.
Koresh envisioned confronting the Antichrist in a Jerusalem surrounded by hostile powers, and speculated that the United Nations would force Israel to return land to the Palestinians. He predicted being killed while resisting – in solidarity with the Jewish people – and that his body would lie in the streets of Jerusalem for three days before being taken up to heaven, when the final judgment comes.