Features Australia

The Jerusalem syndrome

Or why race-faking is all the rage

26 September 2020

9:00 AM

26 September 2020

9:00 AM

Reading about the uptick in race-faking academics in the United States this past week reminded me of the time when I fleetingly wondered if I might be coming down with Jerusalem syndrome. Actually, to be honest, virtually everything I read about happening in the world some days reminds me of the time when I fleetingly wondered if I might be coming down with Jerusalem syndrome.

And so it came to pass in my case, in those now far-off days when long-hauleth flights were still available to the Middle East, that I did journey from New Zealand to the ancient city after which this fearful malady is known. And lo, as the bus I was seated in that morning (yea, even without a mask) ascended the dusty highway and I first beheld the sacred structures, I didst idly wonder if I might yet be smitten with this mighty ailment.

Okay, that’s a bit of a spoof. Larking around with a paragraph in faux King James English doesn’t feature among Jerusalem syndrome’s usual tics. But the list of symptoms is surprisingly long — and for some surprisingly serious.

At least one likely past sufferer, a 29-year-old landscape gardener from Northern Ireland named Oliver McAfee, was never heard of again after apparently coming down with it during a stopover in Israel a couple of years ago.

About one hundred others get it on average each year, and even those who manage to pull through are never quite the same again. Nearly half will end up as hospital cases. Usually they will be treated at one of the local psychiatric wards that specifically deal with the cluster of mental phenomena first described as ‘Jerusalem squabble poison’ by the scholar Heinz Herman back in the 1930s.

What Herman identified was a sort of theological coronavirus, a ‘religio-egocentricity of a personality where an individual believes himself to be the saviour of a person, group of people, nation or entire mankind.’ Yair Bar-El, formerly a director of the Kfar Shaul Mental Health Centre, was the first to give the syndrome its current name in 1982.

Experts still squabble among themselves over the likely explanation. Is Jerusalem syndrome liable to afflict somebody who is a bit potty to begin with and therefore more likely to respond rather vividly to the particular intensity of this city of biblical stones and bones? Or is there something else about Jerusalem that would cause a person in relatively okay mental shape to suddenly go mad for the place?

Or do sufferers succumb to something that has nothing to do with psychosis at all, but rather a kind of heightened culture shock?

But there is little disagreement about how the condition works. According to Bar-El, whose diagnostic checklist I hastily went through while in the bus, the progression starts with a burst of anxiety — which in the case of Israel probably isn’t saying a lot.

Israel is a perpetually anxious place where the volume switch is permanently set on high and the babble and fury of communication hits you everywhere as if stencilled in capital letters. If this doesn’t cause a palpitation or two then something much worse could be wrong with you.

Next comes an urge to leave any group one might be travelling with and go about Jerusalem on one’s own, which again sounded like me except for the fact I was travelling solo to begin with. The madness of crowds and all that.

Then comes a sudden obsession for cleansing. Bathing becomes a huge deal. Often there will be a compulsion to shrug on a white gown, possibly something like (gulp) the one I wore the previous night after showering at my hotel. But that had been in Tel Aviv, so again I was probably in the clear.

At about this point people will start thinking they are a biblical character. In the case of Christian men that usually means Jesus, although a few John the Baptists are known to pop up every now and then in the wards; among their female counterparts it’s a case of Mary Magdalene first and the rest nowhere. For Jewish sojourners the toss-up is between the likes of the prophet Elijah, Samson, even King David.

Thereupon a person may start declaiming scriptural verses or else performing religious songs, which again didn’t really sound like me, not unless one counts the party I once attended in Wellington at which everyone got a bit jolly and began singing Rivers of Babylon.

Finally, and this is where Jerusalem moves from a bit player to the star of the psychological show, there’s an overwhelming desire to go to some holy site and, in the guise of the new character one has appropriated, deliver endless sermons urging the world to repent and become virtuous. At this point the ambulance is usually not far away.

Israelis sometimes say their country serves as a canary in the coal mine for untoward global trends. Certainly, in the years since Jerusalem syndrome was formally discovered, something strikingly similar has popped up elsewhere.

In Italy, for example, visitors to Florence occasionally have been known to keel over in the presence of particularly luscious art; Stendhal syndrome, they sometimes call it. In France a small number of (mainly Japanese) newcomers to the City of Lights manifest ‘acute delusional states, hallucinations, feelings of persecution… and also psychosomatic manifestations’. That’s Paris syndrome.

As I write, the media air is filled with accounts of scholars who appear to have followed a similar trend in the groves of academe.

In the latest, a person of Italian extraction called C.V. Vitolo-Haddad left a teaching job at the University of Wisconsin-Madison after apologising for an ‘overeager identification’ with people of colour. A couple of weeks earlier a nice Jewish girl, Jessica Krug, an associate professor at George Washington University, admitted that she was not the African woman she had successfully passed herself off as being from the day she first set foot in a faculty lounge.

That way, too, went Rachel Dolezal, a professor of Africana studies, who not only managed to dupe her university into thinking that she was black but even managed to lead a chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People.

What the dickens is going on? It’s the Jerusalem syndrome writ crazily large, I tell you, replete with all its classic symptoms. Mark my words, that’s how we need to be thinking about it — or my name’s not King David.

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