American tourist arrested after attacking Roman statues in Jerusalem museum

The statues were attacked in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)
The statues were attacked in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

Israeli police have arrested an American tourist at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem after he hurled works of art to the floor, defacing two second-century Roman statues.

The vandalism late on Thursday raised questions about the safety of Israel’s priceless collections and stirred concern about a rise in attacks on cultural heritage in Jerusalem.

Police identified the suspect as a radical, 40-year-old, Jewish American tourist and said initial questioning suggested he smashed the statues because he considered them “to be idolatrous and contrary to the Torah”.

The man’s lawyer, Nick Kaufman, denied that he had acted out of religious fanaticism.

Instead, Mr Kaufman said, the tourist was suffering from a mental disorder that psychiatrists have labelled the Jerusalem syndrome.

The condition – a form of disorientation believed to be induced by the religious magnetism of the city, which is sacred to Christians, Jews and Muslims – is said to cause foreign pilgrims to believe they are figures from the Bible.

The defendant has been ordered to undergo a psychiatric evaluation. Officials did not release his name due to a gagging order.

The Israel Museum, with its exhibits of archaeology, fine arts, and Jewish art and life, described Thursday’s vandalism as a “troubling and unusual event”, and said it “condemns all forms of violence and hopes such incidents will not recur”.

Museum photos showed the marble head of the goddess Athena knocked off its pedestal onto the floor and a statue of a pagan deity shattered into fragments.

The damaged statues were being restored, museum staff said. The museum declined to offer the value of the statues or cost of destruction.