This was first published at INN and republished here with the author’s permission.
JEWS AND ANTI-SEMITISM IN SWITZERLAND
Manfred Gerstenfeld interviews Simon Erlanger
“There are about 18,000 Jews in Switzerland. This is about the same number as in 1900. The general population however, has more than doubled since then to over 7.8 million. The number of Swiss Jews and their descendants living in Israel is 14,000. Since it was usually the young and active who left for Israel, the Swiss Jewish community today tends to be older with many members on the periphery of the communities.
“Demographically Jewish life is centered today in Zurich and to lesser extent in Geneva and Basel. Only in Zurich the number of Jews remains constant at about 6,000. The Basel Jewish community for instance has diminished by about a third in the past thirty years and now numbers around 1,100. Many small communities had already vanished by the 1990’s and others are likely to disappear within a generation.”
Simon Erlanger is a journalist and historian. He was born in Switzerland in 1965 and educated in Basel and Jerusalem. He teaches Jewish history at the University of Lucerne and also works as an editor for a television station in northwestern Switzerland.
Erlanger says: “Following the Six Day War, the anti-Zionism of the New Left became a political factor in Switzerland overriding the traditional pro-Israel stance of the social-democratic left.i Anti-Semitic incidents were rare during the 1970’s but began to multiply after the Lebanon War of 1982. By then, for example, cemeteries were desecrated almost on a regular basis.ii During the 1980’s and 1990’s a militant extreme Right also emerged. Due to the country’s liberal laws, Holocaust deniers and revisionists used Switzerland as a base. This changed for the better by 1994 with the introduction of an ‘anti-Racism-law.’
“By 1987 when the First Intifada broke out, most of the Swiss mainstream media had become hostile toward Israel and the general atmosphere for Jews had deteriorated. Since then Switzerland has seen an unprecedented upsurge of both traditional anti-Semitism and its newer disguise ‘anti-Israelism.’
“A 2007 poll found that over 86 percent of Swiss Jews deplore media bias and distortions. They consider that this has contributed to a major decrease in personal and communal security. There are many verbal and sometimes physical attacks. They are rarely recorded. In 2007, the SIG, the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities set up an institution to collect data and provide statistics. Another organization, CICAD reports on anti-Semitic incidents in the western, French-speaking part of Switzerland.Most Swiss Jewish communities employ important security measures.
“A specific Swiss element in the rise in anti-Semitism was the affair of the dormant Jewish bank accounts during 1992-1998. For many years, descendants of Holocaust victims had claimed accounts that their murdered relatives had held in Swiss banks. This issue was raised immediately after the war and then again in the 1950’s. After payment of small sums by the banksto Jewish organizations and the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities, the matter had been considered settled.
“Restitution issues were reopened in Europe in the 1990’s. Concerning Switzerland, this developed into a controversy about the country’s record during World War II. This included economic collaboration with the Nazis, laundering of stolen gold and the anti-Jewish refugee policy. The government initially refused to cooperate with Jewish claimants as did the banks. Later on, major Jewish organizations and the U.S. government became involved. This led to the worst Swiss foreign policy crisis in decades. Ultimately a financial settlement was reached between Swiss banks and Jewish organizations.
“The Swiss then had to face a past that did not correspond to the heroic self-image they had cherished. The myth of neutrality while at the same time resisting Nazi Germany, was largely discarded. Many Swiss felt coerced by a hostile outside world—mainly Jews and Americans—seeking to damage Switzerland’s self-image for political and financial purposes. Thereupon a sizable rise occurred in anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism.
“In 1996, then-Swiss President Pascal Delamuraz referred to the restitution debate as “blackmail” and asked whether Auschwitz was located in Switzerland. This gave anti-Semitism a new respectability. The debate on the Swiss wartime record re-legitimized anti-Semitism in many parts of society and unleashed an anti-Semitic wave.
“There was another anti-Semitic wave in 2001. Then-Economics Minister, Federal Counselor Pascale Couchepin suggested, along with the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities, to abolish the prohibition of shechita (ritual slaughter). Not only militant animal rights groups, but much of the public was outraged by this proposal. Articles and letters to the editor openly used traditional anti-Semitic language that would have been unacceptable earlier. The government dropped the proposal to keep internal peace.”
Concerning the future, Erlanger concludes: “Many young Swiss Jews have emigrated over the decades, while many others have opted out of the organized Jewish community and often out of any form of Jewish life. The future of the community —
however well established and affluent – is cause for concern.”
i Christina Späti, Die schweizerische Linke und Israel: Israelbegeisterung, Anti-Zionismus und Anti-Semitismus zwischen 1967 und 1991 (Berlin: Klartext Verlagsgesellschaft, 2006). [German]