When a man who said he was the biblical character Samson arrived at the Western Wall several years ago and insisted on moving a large stone he believed was in the wrong place, Israeli policemen were not terribly surprised.
Samson, a muscular Canadian tourist, was turned over to Kfar Shaul, a Jerusalem psychiatric hospital that has hosted countless prophets and many messiahs. Each year, about 100 tourists succumb to the Jerusalem Syndrome, a psychiatric disorder in which visitors are swept away by the power of Jerusalem and the Holy Land. Like Samson, most are sent home without causing any damage.
But between Easter 1999 and Easter 2000, Israel expects at least 4 million tourists — twice as many as during 1997. Many more than usual will be religious pilgrims. Authorities fear that among them there will be many dangerous visitors, and even a few apocalyptic groups that may try to bring about the end of the world.
Warning bells are already ringing. On Sunday, Israeli police arrested members of a Denver-based apocalyptic Christian cult suspected of planning violent actions in the coming year in order to try to bring about the second coming of Jesus.
And in October, a deranged tourist attempted to set fire to an Egged bus in Jerusalem.
“During the millennium, many will arrive full of religious fervor, and the combination of mentally unstable people and religious faith is extremely dangerous,” says Yair Carlos Bar-El, a psychiatrist in Jerusalem who has conducted an extensive study on the Jerusalem Syndrome.
According to Bar-El’s still unpublished study, the syndrome is a “unique psychotic state” caused by Jerusalem’s special place in the hearts of people of all faiths across the globe.
“When people dream of Jerusalem, they do not see the modern, politically controversial Jerusalem of 1998,” he writes, “but rather, the City of David, the City of Jesus, a Gateway to Heaven, God’s dwelling place, the place where Messiah will reveal himself or the place where Jesus was resurrected and will, one day, reappear.”
These emotions often spark extreme psychotic reactions. Some tourists convince themselves they are biblical figures. Others believe they must carry out a mission to bring about a miraculous event.
Bar-El says most people who catch the Jerusalem bug were already mentally unstable before they arrived in Israel. Christians and Jews are equally susceptible.
However, in 42 recorded cases, perfectly normal visitors were overwhelmed during their stay. Forty of them were Protestants, who are expected to make up the bulk of millennial pilgrims.
Evangelical Christians reject the excitement they say is being drummed up by the media over potential threats. They insist that the vast majority of visitors next year will be peace-loving believers seeking a spiritual experience in the place of Jesus’ birth.
“We have to use the year 2000 the best we can to get a sober, solid biblical message out,” says David Parsons, spokesman for the Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, which represents evangelicals around the world. According to many Christian scholars, Parsons says, Jesus was actually born in the year 4 or 5 B.C., which means that the second millennial year was actually in 1996.
“We believe we are in prophetic times, and probably the greatest sign of this is the regathering of the Jewish people in this land,” says Parsons. “There is a growing expectation [that Jesus will return], but I don’t know of any prominent evangelical figures who [say it will happen in] the year 2000.”
But on the Mount of Olives, a small group of born-again believers is already waiting to greet Jesus when he returns. If their savior does not arrive on schedule, Bar-El says such groups could decide they must take action to help him come.
Millennium watchers say some extremist groups may even try and take down the Al-Aksa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest site, located on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City, in an attempt to spark Armageddon.
Gershom Gorenberg, a senior editor at the Jerusalem Report magazine who has researched millennial groups, says there is a “specific theological school of thought” of pre-millenialists that “asserts that the temple must be rebuilt as part of an `end times’ scenario.”
“The only problem is there is no temple there,” he adds, which is why some of these groups have a keen interest in fringe, messianic Jewish sects that are planning to rebuild the temple.
They already have role models for creating chaos in Jerusalem.
In 1969, Michael Rohan, a Christian fundamentalist from Australia, set fire to the Al-Aksa Mosque. He wanted to rebuild the ancient Israelite temple and then destroy it to spark Armageddon and the resurrection of Christ. Alan Goodman, an American Jewish immigrant to Israel, opened fire on Muslims at the Temple Mount in 1982, killing one Palestinian and injuring four. Both Rohan and Goodman were clinically diagnosed psychotics.
Today, with the fate of the politically sensitive Holy City set to be discussed in final-status talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, such an attack could turn into the Jewish state’s worst nightmare.
“It is now possible for people who want to bring about the end of the world to bring it about, and people behave very strangely under millennial circumstances,” says Richard Landes, a professor of medieval history who heads the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University.
Landes says it is “extremely difficult to gauge” just how many people are coming to Jerusalem with apocalyptic ideas because most people don’t admit how apocalyptic their views are. Since many religious pilgrims expect something dramatic to happen, he adds, they will be “extremely susceptible” to apocalyptic rhetoric during their stay.
Israeli officials say they are beefing up security near Christian holy sites in Jerusalem, Nazareth and Tiberias — and preparing psychiatrists in those cities — that are expected to be trouble spots.
Israeli and Palestinian health officials are even working together to head off problems in Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem. But strategic planning remains difficult, since nobody is quite sure what to anticipate.
“That’s the big problem, nobody wants to prophesize,” says Michael Dor, an Israeli Health Ministry official who participates in an Israeli government committee preparing for the millennium.
However, Dor adds, one thing is certain.
“We don’t want to hospitalize crazy people from all over the world. As soon as someone is diagnosed, we will send them home as quickly as possible and the State of Israel will foot the bill.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.