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The Jerusalem Syndrome

November 13, 2006

The Jerusalem syndrome is the name given to a group of mental phenomena involving the presence of either religiously themed obsessive ideas, delusions or other psychosis-like experiences, which are triggered by, or lead to, a visit to the city of Jerusalem. It is not endemic to one single religion or denomination, but has affected Jews and Christians of many different backgrounds. (from Wikipedia)

I spent a year after college in Israel, several months of which I lived in Jerusalem. I learned after a few weeks that in order to live or travel in Jerusalem, one must be a little bit insane. Everything about Jerusalem is out of proportion: more religious people and more poverty than anywhere else in the country; more historic and holy sites; more American teenagers than anywhere; Palestinians and Israeli Jews living in remarkably close distance to one another, all of which add up to an incredibly tense and crazy living environment for all residents and visitors.

You have to be a little bit crazy to go about your normal day – doing so requires you to ignore things, strange and unjust things, that happen right in front of your face. Street cops in head-to-toe black outfits (complete with black motorcycles and black helmets) harass Palestinian day laborers during their lunch break. Complete houses are demolished in East Jerusalem while the family who lived there watches in horror. And anyone who has ever walked through Independence Park after 10:30 PM on any given night knows that there are many Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) men looking for anonymous gay sex, the same men who, during daylight hours, take part in violent demonstrations against gay pride events. And you have to somehow make all of these observations make sense and still keep your head on straight and get through your day. How can you not go crazy?

I was horrified by last week’s riots in Jerusalem. I cannot even begin to imagine what it must feel like to be a gay Jerusalemite right now. This whole debate is framed by a larger discussion about the abuse of power in a theocracy that is the state of Israel. I love the irony in Haredis protesting the government’s decision to allow gay pride events – a government that many of them don’t even recognize.* The New York Satmars, not to be outdone, staged their own protest at the Israeli consulate. They protested in front of a consulate for a country whose existence they do not recognize. They spat on the counter-protestors from Congregation Beth Simchat Torah (CBST), New York’s GLBT synagogue. They called CBST a whorehouse. That’s Jews, telling other Jews how best to be Jewish. Whatever. I can’t even wrap my mind around that. Gross.

I can’t deal with them. Luckily I don’t have to, because here in New York I can do all of the following things and they don’t conflict with one another: 1) be Jewish, 2) be progressive, 3) be queer and well-adjusted, 4) live in Brooklyn. Maybe it’s about physical distance that Jerusalemites simply do not have – and maybe it’s about that Jerusalem Syndrome thing, that disease that seems to force heightened religious experiences and make the individual feel some sort of religious superiority over others. I bet it’s some combination of those two.

I wrote my senior thesis in college about how Jewish laws on marriage and divorce became part of the ‘basic laws’ (Israel has no constitution) during the establishment of the state. During my presentation, I distinctly remember my father questioning my claim that the state of Israel cannot really be a democratic state if Jewish law plays such a role in its government. I wasn’t sure how to defend my point at that time. And now it seems so obvious. If ultra-orthodox Jews can shut down something as simple as a pride parade in the city center and around the government buildings (far from their own neighborhoods where they isolate themselves), how can we not call this a theocracy? (and there’s the whole question of Palestinians and Palestinian-Israelis, complicating the whole religion and democracy discussion even further. I can’t get into it at the moment. But I acknowledge that it’s there).

If there is any chance for the modern city of Jerusalem (and here I am distinguishing it from the ancient city of Jerusalem) to thrive, its citizens would have to figure out how to balance religion and democracy. It’s clear that the Haredi Jews who protested last week do not respect the religious identity of out gay Jews (they’re OK with closeted Jews though, of course). The way to convince them is to show that despite their thinking that it’s awful and an abomination and everything else horrible to allow GLBT folks to march through Jerusalem, it’s simply not up to them. The decision to change the parade into a rally was made not by the organizers of the parade, it was made by the Israeli government, who hasn’t quite figured out how to deal with the Haredi community and would rather run away than deal with them.

I wish the best for my friends the Jerusalem Open House (JOH), though I fear for them and I know they have an uphill battle ahead of them. I have a lot of complicated issues with the JOH (for another post, also. See this post for a little more on some of those conflicts). I believe that they would do best focusing their energies internally – while the external battles are certainly an important part of an organization such as the JOH, their own programming would flourish if they put the same resources (time, money, energy) into it that they were forced to put into their parade last week. It’s a wonderful community that will hopefully be able to gain strength from the horrors that they experienced last week.

And so, the Jerusalem Syndrome continues. People continue to equate themselves with higher powers and swear that the physical city of Jerusalem holds intrinsic holiness, when in reality, we need to work towards godliness (I can’t believe I just used that word) and realize that Jerusalem, as a holy city, is still a work in progress.

*Edited. Thank you to my mother, who clarified that there are sects among the broad term ‘Haredi’ (Satmar being one example) who do not recognize the existence of the state of Israel. There are Haredis who do.

P.S. Thank you to the anonymous commenter on this post, who informed me that GOD has rules and GOD isn’t liberal. Since you seem to be in such close contact with THE MAN, and I’m sure that he adores you as his PR person, can you let me know next time you speak to him? I’ve got a few messages to pass on. Thanks.

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