American tourist arrested for smashing ancient Roman statues at Israel museum

Israelis visit in an exhibition at the Israel Museum on July 26, 2010 in Jerusalem, Israel. (Photo by Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images)

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 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.

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Instead, Kaufman said, the tourist was suffering from a mental disorder that psychiatrists have labeled 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 gag order.

With religious passions burning and tensions simmering during the Jewish holiday season, spitting and other assaults on Christian worshippers by radical ultra-Orthodox Jews have been on the rise, unnerving tourists, outraging local Christians and sparking widespread condemnation. The Jewish holiday of Sukkot, the harvest festival, ends Friday at sundown.


'Three-piece Sculpture: Vertebrae' by Henry Moore, situated in the The Billy Rose Art Garden at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, 1975. (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)

The prominent 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.

The Israeli government expressed alarm over the defacement, which officials also attributed to Jewish iconoclasm in obedience to early prohibitions against idolatry.

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"This is a shocking case of the destruction of cultural values," said Eli Escusido, director of the Israel Antiquities Authority. "We see with concern the fact that cultural values are being destroyed by religiously motivated extremists."

The vandalism appeared to be the latest in a spate of attacks by Jews against historical objects in Jerusalem. In February, a Jewish American tourist damaged a statue of Jesus at a Christian pilgrimage site in the Old City, and in January, Jewish teenagers defaced historical Christian tombstones at a prominent Jerusalem cemetery.

On Friday morning, about 16 hours after the defacement at the museum, the doors opened to the public at the regularly scheduled time.