Prayer Breakfast

19.03.2013, Berne

Your Excellency, Mr. Peter Gottwald

Your Excellencies

I was delighted to be asked to talk in such an interesting circle about the Jews in Switzerland, their history, background and current issues. I feel very proud and honored. Many thanks for your invitation.

Of course the topic of my presentation is naturally very dear to my heart as president of the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities, the SFJC, the umbrella organization for Jews in Switzerland. Even so, on occasions like this I often have to remind myself that my colleagues, for instance in the United States, would probably never even dream of talking about Jews in America. They would probably not restrict the subject of their talk to the existential situation of a minority. Because their history has long since become an integral part of the history of America itself, they’d be much more likely to launch straight into a discussion of social, economic or political issues, although, they might well introduce a Jewish perspective.

This reflects a major societal difference between the US and Switzerland or Europe in general. While American society clearly revolves around the individual and the individual’s freedom, in European society things revolve around individuals who are always part of, or even subordinate to, specific societies or communities. In Europe minorities in particular are often defined via their origin, culture or religion whenever questions of national import are debated.

The Jews in Switzerland. Who are they actually? On the one hand they’re a group defined by society in a very generalizing way. Many of the people supposed to be part of this group don’t really see themselves as falling under this definition. Jews take their identity from all kind of sources, religion, history, destiny or even just culture.

The Jewish community in Switzerland is very heterogeneous, ranging from the strictly observant to atheist, and from the political left to the right – a mixture of established and immigrant Jews from all over the world. Unlike American Jews, who wholeheartedly embraced the American Way of Life, many Jews in this country still identify very strongly with the distant past.

The first Jews to settle in what is now Switzerland were merchants and tradespeople who came with the Roman legions two thousand years ago. So Jews have been living here longer than Christians! At that time, however, Jews were not citizens with equal rights, even though they took an active part in the development of society.

In the Middle Ages the main business of Jews in Switzerland was money-lending. As you know, Christians were prohibited from engaging in this activity. Jews thus fulfilled an important economic function. When in the fifteenth century Swiss towns lifted the ban preventing Christians from charging interest, the Jews had no raison d’être anymore for the Christian society. They were either killed or driven out of these places. From then on for centuries, there were virtually no Jews anymore living in what today is Switzerland. Only eventually they were allowed to come back and to live again in this country. I might add that this was made possible due to pressure applied by the French and US American governments on Switzerland to allow their own citizens to live in Switzerland.

The Federal Constitution of 1848 may have marked the birth of modern Switzerland, but it was a major disappointment for the Jews, as it failed to bring the equality they had longed for. It wasn’t until the partial revision of the constitution in 1866 that they were granted full legal equality with the other citizens of the country. Finally, in 1874, freedom of religion and conscience was enshrined in the Swiss constitution. This did, however, not prevent the Swiss people from introducing in 1893 a prohibition of the traditional Jewish ritual slaughtering method in the Swiss Constitution.

In the second part of the nineteenth century, Jews in many countries in Europe developed the idea that the solution to Anti-Semitism in Europe was the foundation of a Jewish State. The Zionist idea was born. The first Zionist Congress held in Basel in 1897 was a ray of hope for many Jewish people. The presence of Zionism on home soil was a source of pride for Swiss Jews, many of whom hoped that the congress would signal greater acceptance for the Jewish community in Switzerland.

But by the post-World-War-One period at the latest it was clear that this was not going to happen. The nineteen-twenties also saw the emergence of antisemitic tendencies in Switzerland, which intensified after Hitler had seized power.

Luckily, the German army did not invade Switzerland during World War II. The Jewish population, although constantly in fear, remained unharmed. Around 30,000 Jewish refugees found a safe haven in Switzerland. But probably almost as many Jews seeking refuge in Switzerland were turned away at the border to meet a certain death.

After 1945, Swiss Jews embarked on a process of greater integration. Jewish communities in the cities grew constantly, partly because of greater social mobility, while the number of Jews in rural areas declined steadily. This process continues to this day.

The Jewish population in Switzerland has been stagnating at around 18,000 since the beginning of the twentieth century, and recently has even been in decline. The exception was the Nazi period, with refugees entering the country, but in most cases having to leave again after the War under pressure from the Swiss authorities.

The creation of the State of Israel in 1948 was an event of historical significance for the Jews in Switzerland, many of whom spontaneously expressed their sympathy and solidarity with the young Jewish state. This affinity with Israel is still often misinterpreted. We are sometimes blamed for dual loyalty. It regularly happens that we are taken for Israeli citizens or if not as Israelis, as Swiss having more affinity to Israel and being jointly and severally responsible for its politics. How often do I hear in discussion: “Your government”, “Your country”, “Your people”, and they always refer to Israel, its government and its population. We are Swiss citizens and love our country, but we cannot and do not deny our emotional, religious, historical and cultural closeness to the State and the people of Israel. Many of us of course also have family and friends living there.

The Holocaust and its remembrance remain a dominant theme for Swiss Jews. For example, the debate on the dormant bank accounts of Holocaust victims in the mid nineteen-nineties triggered a long-overdue discussion of Switzerland’s role in World War II.

In these discussions, the SFJC and its protagonists were forced to walk a political tightrope. On the one hand they clearly backed the justified claims of descendents of Holocaust victims. On the other hand they criticized what were in some cases extreme reactions from some protagonists in the United States and Israel, who attacked Switzerland and its authorities in a very generalized, inappropriate way. This process of coming to terms with history was painful, and reopened many old wounds. It also brought old resentment against the Jews to the surface again.

Overall, whenever in discussions the issue is raised on the level of integration of Jews in Switzerland, I keep telling people that we are not anymore on the way of integration, but that we quite simply have become an integral part of Swiss society, Swiss citizens of Jewish confession, such as there are Swiss citizens of catholic or protestant confession. Today Jewish citizens in this country have unrestricted opportunities and are generally well recognized for what they have achieved and what they have contributed to this country and its society, be it in business, culture, science or in many other fields. Let me just mention that a few years ago Switzerland had a Jewish President. Still, the recognition of Jews in Switzerland is a fragile thing that always starts showing cracks at times of crisis. For example when there’s yet another unpleasant development in the Middle East. At these moments, antisemitic circles give free rein to their feelings, sending us malicious e-mails, expressing racist views in blogs, or painting swastikas on walls. And the tendency to blame Jews for everything seen as Israel’s misdeeds is by no means limited to antisemitic circles in Switzerland.

The domestic political discourse isn’t easy either, even though we’ve long been recognized as a partner in dialogue with the political players, be it in government, administration or parties. For example, for a number of years we’ve been seeing more or less latent attacks on religious freedom, exacerbated and − I dare say − legitimized, by the Yes vote on the minaret ban a few years ago. To many people’s astonishment, the SFJC campaigned vehemently against the initiative at the time, even though it apparently only affected Muslims. Unfortunately our efforts failed to bear fruit, and since then the political discourse in Switzerland has taken what for us is a somewhat disturbing direction.

For some it’s burkas or headscarves in general that should be banned. Others are bothered by absences from school on religious holidays. And others still are against the ritual circumcision of boys. The president of one of the parties represented on the Federal Council even opined that confessional cemeteries should be abolished.

The sad conclusion is that in the wake of the debate on the relationship between religion and the state, we have seen growing populist demands that attempt to again limit the religious and cultural rights of minorities.

As for the free practice of religion, naturally we Jews also defend the primacy of the law set by the state. The condition is that the legal system of the state in question is based on the rule of law and protects the basic rights of citizens —which is obviously the case here in Switzerland. And I might mention that there is no contradiction between the fundamental values of Swiss democracy and those of Judaism. For this reason we are strictly opposed to the introduction or rigid enforcement of rules that turn out to be discriminatory measures preventing people from observing religious or cultural traditions.

For us at the SFJC, the most important tools for pursuing our agenda are education and information, and most importantly dialogue – whether with political bodies, the public, or with other religious communities.

I’m convinced that this type of inter-cultural and interreligious cooperation and dialogue will be even more important in the future. And this at a time when politicians and society at large are forgetting how to deal with religion and religious communities, often including even their own.

Many people in Switzerland might say I’m too pessimistic. I hope they’re right. But we Jews have learned our lesson over 2000 years, have perhaps become overly sensitive, but are certainly very well aware just how dangerous prejudices, false notions and projections can become. That’s why I think our efforts are not exaggerated.

To conclude let me finish with an old Jewish joke that suggests that religious dialogue has never been easy: The rabbi goes to God in a panic: “Help! My son has become a Christian. What am I to do?” God replies: “Don’t worry. My son also became a Christian.” “Oh Lord, what did you do?” To which God replies: “I simply wrote a new testament.”

Thank you! I am of course happy to answer any questions