Jerusalem syndrome is a blanket diagnosis for a very particular psychosis, which results from prolonged exposure to this city. Or maybe it’s a totally made up syndrome that attempts to put a medical gloss on the fact that this place just messes with your head. Scholarly opinions appear divided.
It manifests in a variety of ways, usually (though not always) expressing a person’s pre-existing religious outlook–the guy in the sherut with us when we first landed here, back in September, who spent the entire journey from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in wide-eyed explanation that “Every time you hear the syllable ‘El’ in the Bible, it’s a reference to God!” struck me as a case in the making.1
Dear readers, I fear that I, too, am beginning to manifest symptoms of my own version of Jerusalem syndrome. The longer I am here, the less able I am to pass by a tour guide feeding their group with misinformation without saying anything. If you were on the Mount of Olives this morning and a slightly harried woman passed you by muttering under her breath (or not so under her breath) ‘That’s a bald-faced lie’… well, I’m sorry if I disturbed your day. Except if you heard that, then you were with the group whose guide was telling you that ‘the Jews’ (as in: all of us, acting in perfect harmony, without dissent) want to bulldoze the Dome of the Rock so we can build the third temple. And, really, try as hard as I might, I’m not actually sorry for maybe standing quite nearby and exclaiming about your guide’s mendacity at a volume more suited to reaching the ears of someone several hundred metres down the mountain than the person standing right next to me. Mostly, I’m still sorry I didn’t make an about face and confront your guide directly.
Because it is, really, truly, about as close to a bald-faced lie as one can come, and it’s also an extremely damaging lie.
First, while it’s true that there is a small minority of religious zionists who do think a third temple would be a smashing idea (pardon the pun), they’re a really, really small minority. I’m excluding Chabadniks here because, in spite of the large “Help Build the Third Temple” poster displayed on the side of their building in the Old City, their “Third Temple” is clearly eschatological, achieved by observance of mitzvot, rather than bulldozers.
Temple Judaism hasn’t existed for around 2,000 years, and while we still commemorate the Temple in our liturgies, and pray for its restoration, but that is understood in a fairly abstract, metaphorical sense (kind of like Christians aren’t actually endorsing cannibalism when they celebrate communion). We remember a time when our scriptures tell us that the presence of God dwelt very concretely in our midst, and would like that sense of connection restored; the building is just a symbol of the connection.2
Most mainstream Jews (modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and even a fair number of the ultra-Orthodox) aren’t that invested in the Third Temple… but an awful lot of Christians, specifically premillennialists, the type that read the Left Behind series and think the end of the world requires a number of very specific things to happen at very specific places
(I’m sorry if I’m offending any Evangelical Christians who aren’t into end-times prophecy and scriptural literalism; I just don’t have the vocabulary to make the necessary distinction–can someone help me out here?) [Editor’s note: Premillennial, that’s the word I was looking for! Thanks, Anna!] are hugely invested in having all the world’s Jews gather in Israel and re-build the temple, so then Jesus can come back and in the meantime we’ll all either convert or be killed. Joy.
Most of the websites you find if you search for “third temple” or “red heifer” (the sacrifice necessary for purifying the temple mount, and also apparently incredibly difficult to breed) or similar are actually run by Christian end-time believers. So when someone says “The Jews want to rebuild the temple”, what’s actually happening is that the VAST MAJORITY OF JEWS is being co-opted into an apocalyptic fantasy concocted by the imagination of a few Christians, and a very very small number of Jews have been been willingly co-opted into that vision. Saying that it’s “The Jews” who all want this? No.
And that brings me to my second point: a lot of well-intentioned people from outside Israel and Palestine tend to frame the conflict in religious terms, as disagreements over who gets to control sites that are sacred to more than one religion. It’s true that that’s part of the issue, and it’s the part that’s probably the easiest for outsiders to relate to–people come here on pilgrimage, they want to visit holy sites and stand in spots that their religious history tells them are important, and the thought of not being able to do that because of political conflict is abhorrent. But focusing on holy sites and the religious aspects of the conflict makes it too easy to forget that this is a political conflict, in which people’s homes and ability to go about their daily lives are at stake. Framing the conflict as religious leads to (no doubt well-meaning) platitudes like “Oh, but surely we all believe in the same God!” and visions of everyone holding hands and singing Kumbaya on the Temple Mount, where the Dome of the Rock stands intact next to the newly-reconstructed Third Temple, which will no doubt also house a church commemorating Jesus scourging the money-lenders, and nobody noticing that thousands of people in the West Bank and Gaza still can’t travel freely, often can’t access basic services like electricity, running water, or medical attention, or far too often face a choice between emmigration and unemployment. Also: No. Just no.3
Now, if you were at Dominus Flevit about five minutes later and the same harried woman passed by as your guide was reading the passages about Gethsemane and telling you it happened right there, on that very spot, Jesus weeping (“Dominus Flevit”) and asking God to take this cup away from him, and she muttered that you were on the wrong bit of the mountain (Gethsemane being at the base of the hill, not halfway up)… then I am sorry. But the church really is meant to commemorate Luke 19:37-42, not either of the two accounts of Jesus praying to be spared from death. But since nobody can actually agree on where anything actually happened, aside from us being pretty sure that the Mount of Olives is, in fact, the Mount of Olives, who am I to object?
1 Not incorrect, strictly speaking, but… um… WHY do nine people you’ve never seen before in your life, about a third of whom speak Hebrew anyways need a 90 minute lecture? Also, he was extrapolating it to something really weird, but I forget what. It was late and hot and we’d been travelling a really long time at that point.
2 Well, not “just”, because no religious symbol is ever “just” anything, that’s kind of the point of symbols. But it’s not meant to be taken literally, OK? That’s ALSO the point of symbols.
3 Framing the conflict as religious also, of course, lets people who do notice that something is going wrong in the West Bank decide that John’s Gospel was right, and we Jews really are horrible people. This is also non-helpful.