Academic journal article Jerusalem Quarterly

Beyond Jerusalem Syndrome: Religious Mania and Miracle Cures in British Mandate Palestine

Academic journal article Jerusalem Quarterly

Beyond Jerusalem Syndrome: Religious Mania and Miracle Cures in British Mandate Palestine

Article excerpt

In 1937, Dr. Heinz Hermann, the medical director of Ezrath Nashim (Women’s Aid), a private Jewish mental hospital in Jerusalem, published an article on “Jerusalem fever” (Jerusalem-Fieber) in Folia clinica orientalia.2 Based in Tel Aviv and granted a publishing license in September 1937, the German/English-language medical journal proved a short-lived affair, eclipsed by the success of the Hebrew-language medical journal Harefuah (Medicine) among European Jewish doctors in Palestine. But Hermann’s argument, that there was a distinct psychiatric condition linked to the uniquely holy city of Jerusalem, would go on to enjoy a long career, repackaged and popularized later in the century as “Jerusalem syndrome.”3 Grounded in his clinical experience of the numerous prophets and messiahs who could be found wandering the streets of Jerusalem in the 1930s, the idea that a particular place could be mentally dislocating chimed with some contemporary trends in the history of the psy-sciences, particularly psychoanalysis, when Hermann published his piece in 1937. No less a figure than Sigmund Freud had just penned an open letter to Romain Rolland, in which he reflected on his own moment of “derealization” on a trip to the Acropolis in 1904. At a remove of thirty years, Freud boiled down the essence of the experience to a sense of incredulity at reality. “By the evidence of my senses,” he wrote, “I am now standing on the Acropolis, but I cannot believe it.”4 Hermann the psychiatrist had good reason to be cautious about tapping into psychoanalytic thought. His predecessor as medical director of Ezrath Nashim, Dorian Feigenbaum, had been dismissed in 1924 after delivering a series of lectures on the unconscious, dream theory, and the Freudian theory of neurosis.5 In this case, however, Hermann’s clinical experience had led him into the same kind of field of inquiry as Freud.

Jerusalem fever represented the most medically sophisticated attempt to come to terms with mental illnesses of a seemingly religious nature in British Mandate Palestine. But it is hardly the only point of overlap between the histories of psychiatry and mental illness, on the one hand, and of religious belief and practices, on the other. Long before the establishment of either the British Mandate in the aftermath of World War I, or the Ezrath Nashim hospital in 1895, stories circulated about European and American travelers who appeared to be deranged by their encounter with the “Holy Land.” These cases continued into the Mandate period, and in spite of Hermann’s efforts, resisted medicalization. They were messy, defying easy categorization as medical cases and spilling out into other registers: Mandate authorities saw them as potential threats to public order; others observed and reported them, with no small degree of voyeuristic glee, as curiosities, further colorful exoticisms unique to Jerusalem. In parallel to these discussions of European and American cases of religious mania, folklore research – by Europeans and Palestinians – sought to record for posterity a rich set of beliefs and practices among Palestinians around mental illness, involving jinn (spirits), saints, and shrines.

These distinct ways of framing the connection between mental illness and religious beliefs and practices were largely kept apart at the time, and in scholarship since. Medicalized approaches to the question of mental illness have hitherto been studied largely in terms of the exploits of European Jewish psychiatrists in Palestine, with the role of the Mandate health department – which employed British and Palestinian Arab, as well as European Jewish, doctors – deemed marginal to this field of inquiry.6 On the other hand, studies of European and American travelers to Palestine, including those who appeared to have been driven mad by the experience, have tended to take as their point of departure the question of Orientalism.7 Work on Palestinian folklore research, meanwhile, has foregrounded its complex position within a political history of Palestinian nationalist assertion. …

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