(JTA) — An American Jewish tourist was arrested in Israel for allegedly destroying two Roman-era statues inside the Israel Museum, claiming to police that they were “idolatrous and contrary to the Torah.”
The suspect’s alleged actions caused “substantial damage” to the nearly 2,000-year-old pieces, police said.
Police officers were called to the prestigious Jerusalem cultural institution Thursday evening after a visitor, identified as a 40-year-old American Jewish man, intentionally smashed the statues, which were part of the permanent exhibition in the museum’s archaeology wing.
The museum provided a photo of a stick they said the suspect was carrying as he walked throughout the museum, and which he may have used to damage the statues, according to the Times of Israel. The damaged sculptures dated to the 2nd century and depicted the head of the goddess Athena (the Roman Minerva) and what appeared to be a statue of a griffin clutching the wheel of fate, representing the goddess Nemesis.
The damaged statues are being repaired by the museum’s conservation department, and the museum was open to the public on Friday morning.
“The Israel Museum considers this incident a troubling and unusual event,” a statement from the museum said. “The museum’s management condemns all forms of violence and hopes such incidents will not recur.”
Despite the suspect’s assertion to police about the statues’ “idolatrous” nature, his lawyer, Nick Kaufman, denied that his client had acted out of religious fanaticism. The suspect’s name is not being released due to a gag order, according to the Associated Press.
Instead, Kaufman claimed that his client was suffering from “Jerusalem syndrome,” a mental phenomenon seen in tourists to the city and characterized by “religious excitement induced by proximity to the holy places of Jerusalem,” according to a paper written in 2000 by a group of Israeli researchers. He has been ordered to undergo a psychiatric evaluation.
Rabbinic legend has it that Abraham, the biblical patriarch, smashed his father’s idols, and aversion to idol worship has historically been a strong impulse among traditionally observant Jews. However, in the present day virtually no Jewish authorities endorse smashing idols or vandalizing cultural or religious institutions.
But this is not the first time this year that non-Jewish religious objects have been damaged in Jerusalem. In February, an American tourist was arrested for damaging a statue of Jesus inside the Old City, and in January, two Israeli teenagers defaced 30 tombstones at a prominent Old City Christian cemetery.
“This is a shocking case of the destruction of cultural values,” said Eli Escusido, director of the Israel Antiquities Authority. “We see with concern the fact that cultural values are being destroyed by religiously motivated extremists.”