Real, Imaginary, and Symbolic Roles of Jews in Swiss Society

, April 27, 2010

Jewish Political Studies Review 22:1-2 (Spring 2010)

Numbering just under eighteen thousand, Jews constitute a tiny fragment of Switzerland’s population of 7.7 million. Nevertheless, Swiss public discourse is preoccupied with things Jewish. This goes back at least as far as the first centralized Swiss state. The Helvetic Republic, founded in 1798, fell apart largely over the issue of Jewish emancipation. This issue remained at the very center of the Swiss political discourse up to 1868 when, under U.S. and French pressure, Switzerland granted equal rights to the Jews. Having benefited from foreign intervention, Jews in Switzerland have come to symbolize unwanted change and foreign influence. Moreover, the special, bottom-up character of the Swiss body politic, with its semiautonomous cantons and communities, has enabled medieval stereotypes to survive into modernity. The medieval image of the Jew as the religious Other has thus transformed into the image of the Jew as the essential Other against which, for most of the twentieth century, Swiss identity was defined.

Jews are all over the news in Switzerland. Rarely does a day go by without many, mostly negative feature articles or news items on Jews and Israel. Jews are news in every respect. When Swiss Jewish personalities or organizations issue statements on current concerns, these are generally heard and widely reported even if the person or organization has no real influence, public impact, or power. Jews, being the representatives of what now is dubbed the country’s Jewish-Christian heritage, are perceived to hold moral power. For many, the seemingly weak local Jews represent something larger and more powerful, the mysterious World Jewry.

Essentially, the Swiss public discourse is preoccupied beyond all proportion with Jewish matters. Numbering barely eighteen thousand,[1] Swiss Jews constitute only a tiny fragment of the country’s population of 7.7 million.[2] Nevertheless, newspapers of all varieties, national and local television stations, and radio stations regularly report on Jewish issues. Beyond the largely negative reporting on Israel there is also a more positive focus on Jewish culture. In a way that can only be described as obsessive, barely a week passes without articles, reports, and features on a wide range of Jewish historical and cultural issues.[3] Klezmer music can often be heard, and Fiddler on the Roof has become a standard production of many rural and provincial stages.

Recently Melnitz, a novel by the Swiss Jewish writer Charles Lewinsky, became Switzerland’s bestselling novel in decades.[4]  It tells the story of a Swiss Jewish family from emancipation in the 1870s to World War II. This saga follows the many family members on their respective paths from traditional Jewish life to emancipation, assimilation, Orthodoxy, or Zionism culminating in Swiss Jewry’s survival during the 1940s. The book’s success is the more surprising as the story and language of more than half of the novel are deeply rooted in the vanished rural life of theLandjudentum (land Jewry) that existed until the Shoah in southern Germany, Alsace, and Switzerland. Although, seemingly, the book’s content, modes of expression, and Western Yiddish dialect cannot be fully understood by someone not acquainted with that world, its popularity is a fact.

Apparently, then, Jews fascinate. But sometimes it seems that the Swiss media and reading public are more comfortable with the threatened or vanished culture of long-dead Jews than with the thriving, living Jewish communities in Switzerland and the rest of Europe, North America, and Israel, with all their complexities and recurrent internal controversies on a wide range of political, social, and religious issues. Over the past twenty years the Swiss media and public have been especially ambivalent toward the Israeli Jewish reality, concerning which a discourse of delegitimization has taken hold.


Several controversies centering on Swiss-Jewish relations have preoccupied the country since the 1990s.

First, the general debate about restitution of lost Jewish property reached Switzerland beginning in 1992 and resulted in heated arguments about hidden Jewish accounts in Swiss banks, Switzerland’s policy against Jewish refugees from 1933 to 1953, and the general Swiss record during World War II. The debate lasted for most of the decade, angering mostly American Jewish organizations against not only the Swiss establishment but the Swiss general public as well.

People of all age groups and political convictions felt coerced into accepting a new historical narrative that put a large question mark on Switzerland’s self-image as a neutral but heroic country, which stood up for its democratic values throughout the worst times of the twentieth century. The Swiss now had to confront a past that did not correspond to the popular image they had come to cherish. Especially the older were disturbed by the idea that, while they were manning the borders against the Germans, a large part of the Swiss political and economic elite had actually collaborated with Nazi Germany. Amid these unpleasant tidings, people turned against the messenger as anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism reached new heights.[5] For the first time since the 1930s, anti-Semitism was displayed openly. The social constraints that had prevented this so far evaporated quickly in the heat of the debate.[6]

The next controversy erupted in 2002 and centered on the issue of lifting the ban on shechita (Jewish ritual slaughter). This ban had been introduced in 1893 in the first Swiss referendum.[7] Although the ostensible purpose was to protect animals, the real motive at the time was to limit Jewish immigration. The Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities (SIG) was founded in 1904 with the sole aim to combat the ban, and does so to this day but to no avail.

In 2002, Interior Minister Pascale Couchepin tried to get the ban lifted with the help of the SIG. Even before the proposal was put before the government and parliament, it caused a massive public outcry. Although the protesters claimed they were purely motivated by animal rights, the anti-Semitic overtones could not be missed.[8] Public rancor mounted until the government, in accordance with the SIG, decided to drop the issue so as to keep the peace between the Christian majority and the Jews.[9] The issue has not been revived since.

More recently Switzerland’s Middle East policies have caused tension with Israel and consternation among Jews worldwide. Its appeasement of Iran, the meetings of Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey and President Hans-Rudolf Merz with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Swiss backing of the openly anti-Israeli UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, the recurrent invocation of the Geneva Conventions against Israel while generally ignoring,  among other things, Iranian and Hamas aggressive intentions and actions-all these have put a large question mark on Switzerland’s traditional neutrality and mediating role.

The Jewish Community-Real and Imaginary

All the abovementioned controversies have pervaded the country’s public discourse. It is, then, no wonder that when polled on the number of Jews in Switzerland, the average Swiss regularly puts the figure at a hundred thousand to a quarter-million or more,[10] giving as a reason the Jews’ high visibility, their constantly being mentioned in the media, and their alleged great social, cultural, and political influence in Switzerland. Actually, Jews in Switzerland have never numbered more than twenty thousand-today, as mentioned, a tiny minority of around eighteen thousand. The statistical probability for the average Swiss to actually meet or know a Jew is very small.

Moreover, the Jewish community is rapidly aging and shrinking. For example, over the past twenty years the 204-year-old Basel Jewish community has diminished by about a third and now numbers about 1,150. Young Swiss Jews have been opting out of the organized Jewish community and, in most cases, any form of Jewish life, or emigrating, mostly to Israel.[11] According to the Swiss Foreign Ministry, the number of Swiss and their descendants still holding Swiss passports in Israel is almost fourteen thousand.[12] The great majority of these are said to be Jewish.

The aging and shrinking Swiss Jewish community does not, in reality, wield much political, social, or cultural power. There are perhaps a dozen public figures who are Jewish or of Jewish descent. The odd Jewish politician, television figure, professor, or entrepreneur does not amount to real Jewish influence, especially when most of these keep a very low profile regarding their Jewish identity or descent. This inconspicuousness, perfected by some Swiss Jews into a veritable art, seems to indicate a social anti-Semitism in the best of times. There indeed still seems to be a “glass ceiling” that inhibits careers. There are virtually no Jews on the boards of any of the major Swiss companies operating globally, whether in banking, insurance, biotechnology, or pharmaceuticals.[13] There are today virtually no Jews in the top ranks of any national political party. Although some members of parliament claim-behind closed doors-Jewish descent, today there is not a single openly Jewish MP. Nor are there any large Jewish firms; there are two or three  small, private, Jewish-owned banks and the occasional medium-sized law firm.

Despite the fact, then, that the Jewish community is highly educated and largely middle-class, it lacks any real influence. Contrary to popular Swiss myth, it is not very rich. In addition to the generally high cost of living in Switzerland, most of its more traditional members must also struggle with the high cost of a traditional Jewish lifestyle. This is made even more expensive by the high cost of Jewish education and the ban on shechita, making it necessary to import all meat.

With less than eighteen thousand people, the community is also simply too small-and old-to possess any real political leverage. In comparison, the Muslim community is estimated to have grown over the past thirty years from twenty thousand to over four hundred thousand, and stands to wield considerable social and political leverage in the future. There will be no such role for Swiss Jewry beyond a certain moral influence associated with what today are termed “Judeo-Christian values.” The Jewish community’s public standing is therefore largely symbolic, existing only in the minds and imagination of parts of the Swiss population. The community’s resources are limited. It cannot be counted on to exert influence in situations of need and crisis for Israel, Diaspora Jews, or even for itself, a fact that is all too often lost on Israeli decision-makers.

Prejudice Preserved

Why, then, is the Swiss public so preoccupied with the Jews when the community is so small and insignificant?

Assuming that the majority of Swiss are not conspiracy theorists and do not believe in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a different answer is needed.  It seems to lie in history. The American historian Jonathan Steinberg, in a 2005 lecture in Zurich commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the Leo Baeck Institute,[14] noted that throughout Swiss history Jews have played a role in the Swiss imagination vastly disproportionate to their numbers and influence in the country.

He explained this in terms of the special development of the Swiss state and society from the bottom up. Switzerland is one of the few places in Europe where the communal freedoms of the Middle Ages have been preserved up to the present. Having been a loose confederation of independent states for centuries, only after 1848 was Switzerland gradually transformed into today’s federal state where many powers-such as education and large parts of law enforcement and health policy-still lie with the twenty-six cantons. In addition, every canton has its own budget that is determined by its own parliament and government, and several other powers such as the right to tax income are devolved to the more than 2,600 communities orGemeinden. Overall, then, Switzerland is a very decentralized state with very high involvement of the average citizen.

Indeed, Swiss citizenship is defined locally. One does not become Swiss via some federal act but by being accepted by the local community, often in a vote by an assembly of citizens. One thereby becomes a citizen of the village or town, thereby of the canton, and thereby of Switzerland. Add to this the regular voting, about six times a year, through the procedure of “initiative and referendum,” and the picture emerges of a highly democratic state where power lies with the individual citizen and not-as, for example, in France-with the self-appointed elite of a strong, centralized state. The Swiss system of local government through a network of semiautonomous communities and cantons, the so-called Swiss freedom, is periodically questioned by certain intellectual, political, and economic elites seeking to lead Switzerland into the European Union, but is defended by the large majority that wants no part of a centralizing EU.

The traditional decentralized Swiss system in fact produces a high degree of social and political cohesion. The system does not, however, allow for rapid decision-making. Effecting change usually requires a lengthy social and political process. This also accounts, in Steinberg’s view, for the fact that in Switzerland elites could not and cannot push reform as they did and do elsewhere in Europe. Old prejudices can influence policy much longer than elsewhere. Traditional late medieval anti-Semitism, therefore, retained a political effect in Switzerland long after it had become politically irrelevant elsewhere.

In Europe generally, it was an enlightened elite of thinkers, writers, and public servants who brought about the emancipation of the Jews from the 1780s on. In most places popular opinion opposed emancipation, causing Napoleon, for example, to rescind parts of it in his décret infâme (infamous decree) of 1808. With this decree, Napoleon severely limited Jewish civil rights as guaranteed by the French National Assembly since 1793. This official discrimination was only withdrawn in 1818, three years after Napoleon’s final fall.

Because of Switzerland’s decentralization and high level of individual liberty, progress in the country was particularly slow and traditional religious anti-Judaism shaped minds and policies well into the modern period. Whereas, for example, in France Jews were emancipated by acts of the National Assembly in 1792-1793, in Switzerland emancipation was first tried in 1798 but was finally realized only seventy-six years later in 1874.[15]

It is true, then, that the bottom-up nature of Swiss society and politics explains the persistence of certain attitudes-which may exist elsewhere as well but, given the influence of modernizing elites, are not felt politically-and specifically the slow pace of Jewish emancipation in the nineteenth century. It still does not explain, however, why the Swiss appear so preoccupied with Jewish matters in the first place. Explaining that requires a closer look at history.

Switzerland has an old Jewish community. In 2001, during an excavation near Basel, a ring dating to the third or fourth century was found bearing a menorah.[16] Although little is known in this regard about the so-called Dark Ages, thirteenth-century sources show that most small towns and all larger ones in the territories that were eventually to form the Swiss Confederation were home to small Jewish communities.[17] These were part of the wider Ashkenazi settlement north of the Alps. Treatment of Jews followed the same pattern as elsewhere-a  steady deterioration in legal, economic, and social status ever since the First Crusade of 1096 and the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215.[18]

Switzerland began to differ from the rest of Central and Western Europe after the Plague of 1348-1349, for which the Jews were blamed. In consequence, the citizens, guilds, and nobility of most cities along the Rhine and Rhone river valleys attacked  the Jewish populations in their midst. In virtually every city the Jews were burnt, and most of the Jewish communities were destroyed.

It was then that many European towns and territories expelled the survivors and swore never to let in Jews again. However, it was in the territory of the Swiss Confederation that this ban was most strictly enforced. Whereas in the Alsatian and southern German lands bordering Switzerland a strong Jewish rural presence had again developed by the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries,[19] no Jews were allowed into the territories and towns of the now consolidated Swiss Confederation except for the occasional doctor, craftsman, or book printer. In excluding the Jews the rampant anti-Jewish stereotypes of the time were invoked, such as the Jew as Christ-killer, the blood libel, or the Jew as general danger to Christianity.

Only in the county of Baden, in the Surbtal, a small rural area in today’s Aargau  canton not far from Zurich, could Jews acquire residence from the seventeenth century on. These, however, were territories conquered from the Habsburg dynasty by the Swiss Confederacy  and jointly administered by several cantons. Hence these territories were not legally considered Swiss territory. Nevertheless, it was there that from the seventeenth century the nucleus of modern Swiss Jewish life developed in the two “Jewish villages” of Endingen and Lengnau. Jews lived there as legal aliens in exchange for fees and heavy taxation. Residence could always be rescinded at will. Jews were dependent on the goodwill of the authorities, who granted residence as an act of grace to subservient subjects.

This pattern has become formative up to this very day, both for how society and the authorities expect Jews to behave and the way Swiss Jews actually do behave. This largely explains the low-profile approach of the Swiss Jewish leadership over the past century. The Swiss Jewish historian Jacques Picard has called this approach “Minhag Suisse”-a time-honored custom of Swiss Jewry.

Back in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Jews were too poor and their position too weak to effectively resist any harmful action by the authorities. They were nevertheless perceived by their neighbors as a significant economic, cultural, and religious threat. From the mid-seventeenth century to 1769, the non-Jewish population of the Surbtal asked the Swiss authorities at least six times to expel the Jews. The authorities did not comply; the taxes paid by the Jews were too valuable even though the Jewish population was so small. By the end of the eighteenth century, there were 553 Jews living in Endingen and Lengnau in late medieval conditions. The idea of toleration, which had just begun to gain ground among enlightened European elites, did not take hold in Switzerland. Bottom-up politics did not allow for it. It was the French invasion and occupation of Switzerland in 1798 that finally brought change.

The French created a new centralized Swiss state, the Helvetic Republic, that was based on the French model and abolished the old Swiss liberties. Proud cantons became mere administrative districts. Full equality was immediately granted by decree only to French, mostly Alsatian Jews who were French citizens. It was these Jews who under French protection started to establish new communities in Swiss cities such as Bern or Basel for the first time since the late Middle Ages. For native Swiss Jews nothing changed, although the first central Swiss parliament, which met in spring 1798, declared Jewish emancipation. Emancipation, however, was deferred and the matter was discussed in vain for almost five years.

It turned out to be one of the defining issues of the Helvetic Republic. Liberal revolutionaries and conservatives fought back and forth over it. Jewish emancipation turned out to be one of the issues that led to the breakdown of this first Swiss republic on the French model and the outbreak of war and civil strife in 1802. In the only organized pogrom in modern Swiss Jewish history, hundreds fell on the two largely Jewish villages, destroying property and physically injuring many people. This popular outburst was among the reasons that Napoleon decided to abolish the Helvetic Republic in 1803 and replace it with a federal system more in tune with traditional Swiss norms of autonomy and individuality. Swiss Jewish emancipation fell from the agenda for a long time. During the restoration period after 1815, Swiss conservatives sought to turn the clock back and even tried to expel the French Jews who had settled in the country since 1798. It was again a major issue, in which the weakened France of the 1820s and 1830 intervened politically several times.[20]

In the 1830s, American president Andrew Jackson sent personal envoys to defend the rights of Swiss Jews. Again, all this activity and conflict centered on a tiny community-at that time fewer than a thousand people in a country of almost two million.

Jews as Symbols

Traditional stereotypes persisted in part because of the bottom-up character of Swiss politics. Another reason was the symbolic role of the Jews. It was believed that their being set on the road to emancipation, with the French Jews enjoying the protection of a foreign government, had enabled them to profit from invasion and occupation. Jews were thus seen as foreign agents, symbolizing the end of the old order and the old liberty, and as forerunners of change and modernization. By 1860 Switzerland had, indeed, changed beyond recognition from a rural country into one of the most industrialized ones along with England and the northeastern United States. Hence, despite modernization and the founding of the modern federal state in 1848, full Jewish emancipation kept being postponed because of popular sentiments. It was only American and French economic pressure that finally brought the Swiss to grant equal rights to the Jews in 1868. It took another six years and a new constitution to fully realize these rights. But this, again, was an intervention of foreign powers and lacked legitimacy in Switzerland.

And again it was the democratic character of the new Swiss federal state that brought a backlash against Jewish emancipation. Following formal emancipation in 1874, Jewish communities flourished and greatly expanded. In 1881, a great influx of East European Jews began.[21] The community increased to twenty thousand by the end of the nineteenth century. During those years, in an attempt to reconcile the liberals who had founded the federal state and the conservatives who had opposed it, the new democratic right of referendum was introduced. It was immediately used for anti-Jewish measures. In the first-ever Swiss referendum in 1893, the majority voted to prohibit shechita. The aim, as noted, was to limit Jewish immigration. The referendum on banning schechita was supported by some churches and professional organizations but opposed by most political parties and the government, which regarded its content as an infringement of the newly found freedom of religion. Nevertheless, the prohibition became part of the constitution.

Swiss against Jewish Identity

As well as a foreign force of modernization, there was another important way in which Jews were perceived symbolically. Switzerland was deeply divided between Protestants and Catholics, between modern liberal cities and a backward religious interior, and between French, Italian, and German speakers. Indeed, it was not at all clear what it meant to be Swiss. When war broke out in 1914, the country almost split apart as the German speakers sided with Germany and the French cantons with France. Finding a common denominator became crucial. And when a society has trouble defining a positive common identity, it can use a negative one instead; if you cannot say who you are, you can at least say who you are not.

Thus, the nation united around the principle of not being Jews: being Jewish became the opposite of being Swiss. Jews were the essential Other against which the collective was defined. This is, of course, reminiscent of the Middle Ages, when Christian society was defined by excluding the Jews as the religious Other. The defining of Swiss identity against a stereotyped Jewish identity was, indeed, made possible by the preservation of medieval prejudice owing to the bottom-up character of the Swiss state.

The attempt to create a common Swiss identity by excluding Jews is what lay behind the anti-Jewish immigration policy that had been firmly instituted by the 1920s.[22]  Jews stood for modernity and the removal of boundaries, the soullessness and restlessness of the big city, the estrangement of modern man. Being Swiss now stood for the opposite: a mythical rural existence, an age-old social order where everybody had his place, deep roots in a heroic history conferring independence and neutrality.

Unlike in Germany, for the most part this was not seen in racial terms. Being at the meeting point of the French, German, and Italian cultures, Switzerland defined itself as a Willensnation, a nation based not on ethnicity but on shared values. By 1914, “old,” assimilated Swiss Jews who had become Swiss in appearance, language, and mentality were thus included. Hostility was directed against foreign Jews, mostly from Eastern Europe, and it was regarding them that the notion of “overforeignization” (Überfremdung) arose.[23] This influx of foreigners was seen as subverting national and cultural identity.

In 1914, 17 percent of the Swiss population as a whole consisted of foreigners. In the rapidly growing large cities, foreigners constituted up to 40 percent of the population. Policymakers and conservative intellectuals proposed that all these migrants be absorbed by making the naturalization process easier, a policy that was partly followed before World War I. But this was not applied to East European Jews. For them a special policy of exclusion was tacitly adopted without any parliament ever discussing or legislating it. Their time of residence before naturalization was doubled, making naturalization very difficult and in some cases impossible. This policy was silently introduced by the Zurich authorities in the 1920s and then widely replicated until it was adopted on a national level in the 1930s. This policy reached its peak in the 1940s when Jewish naturalization was effectively stopped for a while.

East European Jews were a tiny minority yet were regarded as a major threat to Swiss culture and unwanted competition in the labor market. They were considered unassimilable and as contributing to the Verjudung (Judaization) of the country, which had to be prevented. Thus, they had to be kept out of the country. If they had already entered it, naturalization had to be made almost impossible for them. Beginning in 1920, it was also argued that Jewish immigration would spark violent anti-Semitism in Switzerland and must therefore be prevented. Researchers have called this preventive anti-Semitism.

The aim of preventing Jewish immigration and settlement was central to the Swiss authorities’ agenda before the rise of Nazism in Germany. It shaped the anti-Jewish refugee policy before and during World War II. Jewish refugees were not supposed to take permanent refuge in Switzerland. Under the policy of transmigration, they had to leave Switzerland as soon as possible. When many thousands of Jews tried to flee Austria after the Anschluss of March 1938, and again in 1942-1943 when Jews tried to escape deportation from France, the Netherlands, and Belgium, the Swiss borders were completely sealed to Jewish refugees. Despite some public protest, at least twenty-four thousand Jewish refugees were turned back at the borders and subsequently were mostly murdered by Nazi Germany and its allies. Most of the 22,500 Jewish refugees who did manage to get into Switzerland and survived the war there were interned for longer or shorter periods in various reception and labor camps. This measure was designed to prevent them from establishing any kind of permanent residence in the country. Most of these had to leave by 1953.[24]


Although anti-Semitism did not vanish in Switzerland after 1945, it became less acceptable to express it in public. With the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, the symbolic role Jews played in the Swiss mind underwent a change. Official but confidential documents say that Jews, now that they had a place of their own to go to, would not want to be Swiss anymore. Hence, Swiss identity was perceived to be less threatened. Indeed, Switzerland, as a small, neutral state that was nonetheless highly militarized during the Cold War, identified with the small, threatened Jewish state that had to fight off Soviet-backed Arab states to secure its independence.


That positive identification, however, has been replaced by a strong anti-Israeli  sentiment that has been growing since the First Lebanon War of 1982. This enmity has intensified with the controversy over the Swiss World War II record and the issue of hidden Jewish bank accounts. Today, anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish feelings have become rampant in all layers of Swiss society and turned into a full-fledged discourse of delegitimization. This is linked to a zealous popular anti-Americanism, also rooted in the disputes of the 1990s.

The debate on hidden Jewish accounts, the laundering of Nazi gold, economic collaboration, and the Swiss anti-Jewish refugee policy had the effect of damaging the self-image of Swiss society, which felt besieged. Actions and statements by Jewish leaders and organizations were not perceived as directed against the actual perpetrators in government and banks and/or their respective heirs and legal successors, but against the Swiss nation as a whole. Swiss Jews were again seen as foreign agents of a power, the United States, unfriendly to Switzerland. Anti-Israelism can be seen as a politically correct means of hitting back.

In our time, when anti-Semitism is no longer legitimate but anti-Israelism is, the recurring theme of defining oneself in opposition to anything Jewish has also returned in a different guise. It is expressed in Swiss humanitarian policies. Switzerland views itself as occupying the moral high ground; it is the country of the Red Cross, hosts international organizations, and is the depositary of the Geneva Conventions. Currently it is utilizing several of these institutions – including the aforementioned Human Rights Council, which it has helped build – to judge Israel, distance itself from it, instigate international action against it, and further the international discourse of delegitimization. In its fixation on anything Jewish, for Switzerland this is also a way of retaining the moral high ground.

Such sentiments are exacerbated by the fact that since the end of the Cold War, Switzerland has become a society where internal and external political and economic developments have fostered a deep sense of disorientation and ongoing crisis. In a world divided between competing power blocs, Switzerland could hold its traditional position as a country aloof, maintaining its neutrality, banking secrecy, and old certainties. But in the globalizing post-Cold War world, the time-honored stability and verities have been undermined.

The recent Swiss vote on banning minarets has been explained by many as a counterreaction to this trend. It is claimed that, contrary to other European countries, in Switzerland relations between the fast-growing Muslim minority and the majority have largely been peaceful. Swiss Islam has been seen as generally moderate and in no way militant or radical.[25] But, however true, commentators tend to overlook what is noted above: the special, bottom-up character of Swiss democracy, where the popular vote counts and sovereignty is always concentrated in the people and not in their parliamentary representatives. This very democratic character of the society not only explains the slow pace of social change, as in the case of Jewish emancipation and longstanding anti-Jewish stereotypes, but also the vote banning minarets, which was not really about minarets but about a perceived Islamization. What matters is not necessarily what happens in Switzerand but what people see happening in neighboring countries and believe could come to Switzerland as well.

With the Muslim community growing within a very short time to about 5 percent of the Swiss population, the fear of a “parallel society” emerging apparently proved decisive in the recent vote. Feeling that their Swiss identity was being further challenged, the population opted to prohibit minarets against the will of most parties and intellectuals and all churches. This could launch a discourse over the very character of the state; some minor parties already seek to redefine this largely secular country as a purely Christian one.


Despite being in the center of Europe, Switzerland sees itself as a unique country. Insofar as it is organized from the bottom up with semiautonomous cantons and communities, this is indeed the case. This structure made possible, however, the survival of ancient stereotypes in a modern political environment. Swiss society has ascribed to the Jews a symbolic role way beyond their actual numbers and influence. Jews have symbolized, and continue to symbolize, unwanted change as well as foreign influence and pressure. They have also served as the essential Other against which, during most of the twentieth century, Swiss identity was defined. Although this goes hand in hand with an interest-unprecedented in Switzerland-in Jewish history and culture, this interest focuses more on dead Jews than on the living and thriving Jewish centers in today’s world.

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[1] Claude Bovay, ed., “Eidgenössische Volkszählung 2000: Religionslandschaft in der Schweiz,” Swiss Federal Statistical Office, Neuchâtel, 2004, 17 [German]. The exact number is given as 17,914 persons, constituting 0.25 percent of the Swiss population in 2000.

[2] See (last viewed on 8 November 2009). [German]

[3] This can easily observed by, for example, following the online editions of the three major newspapers and magazines, Neue Zürcher Zeitung(, Tagesanzeiger (, and Weltwoche (

[4] By the spring of 2009 the book had sold four hundred thousand copies and been translated into about ten languages including Hebrew. A Swiss book is usually considered a success when it sells about four thousand copies. See;art624,1296357 (last viewed on 8 November 2009) [German]; (last viewed on 9 November 2009). [German]

[5] See “Gesellschaft Minderheiten in der Schweiz,” Jahresbericht 2002/2003, Oktober 2003, (last viewed on 8 November 2009). [German]

[6] For a balanced Swiss account, see Thomas Maissen, Verweigerte Erinnerung. Nachrichtenlose Vermögen und die Schweizer Weltkriegsdebatte 1989-2004 (Zürich: NZZ Verlag, 2005). [German]

[7] Pascal Krauthammer, Das Schächtverbot in der Schweiz (Zürich: Schulthess Juristische Medien, 2000). [German]

[8] Yves Kugelmann, “Antisemitismus – die nächste Hürde für den SIG,”  interview with SIG-President Alfred Donath, tachles, 18, 3 May 2002, 2, Jahrgang, Ausgabe 1 (last viewed on 8 November 2009). [German]

[9] See (last viewed on 8 November 2009). [German]

[10] See (last viewed on 8 November 2009). [German]

[11] See (last viewed on 8 November 2009). [German]

[12] On Swiss citizens in Israel, see  [German]; [German]

[13] The top one hundred firms in the world include six Swiss ones.

[14] Jonathan Steinberg, “Die Schweiz und die Juden: zwei Sonderfälle?” Vortrag im Rahmen der internationalen Tagung “Jüdische Geschichte im deutschsprachigen Europa und die Schweiz,” anlässlich des 50-jährigen Jubiläums des Leo Baeck Instituts, Zürich, 2005. [German]

[15] See Aram Mattioli, Hg., Antisemitismus in der Schweiz 1848-1960 (Zürich: Orell Füssli, 1986). [German]

[16] Ludwig Berger, ed., Der Menora-Ring von Kaiseraugst: Jüdische Zeugnisse römischer Zeit zwischen Britannien und Pannonien (Basel: Schwabe Verlag, 2005). [German]

[17] See Augusta Welder-Steinberg, “Geschichte der Juden in der Schweiz,” in Schweizerischer Israelitischer Gemeindebund, 2 vols. (Zürich: SIG, 1966).

[18] See Michael Toch, “Die Juden im Mittelalterlichen Reich,” Enzyklopädie Deutscher Geschichte, Bd. 44 (München: Oldenbourg, 1998). [German]

[19] See Jonathan I. Israel, European Jewry in the Age of Mercantilism 1550-1750 (Oxford: Littmann Library of Jewish Civilisation, 1998).

[20] See Aram Mattioli, Hg., Antisemitismus in der Schweiz 1848-1960 (Zürich: Orell Füssli, 1986). [German]

[21] Patrick Kury, “Man akzeptierte uns nicht, man tolerierte uns!”  Ostjudenmigration nach Basel 1890-1930, Hg.: Schweizerisch-Israelitischer Gemeindebund SIG, Bd. 7 der Beiträge zur Geschichte und Kultur der Juden in der Schweiz (Basel: Helbing & Lichtenhahn, 1998). [German]

[22] Patrick Kury, Über Fremde reden, Überfremdungsdiskurs und Ausgrenzung in der Schweiz 1900-1945 (Zürich: Chronos, 2003) [German]; Uriel Gast, Von der Kontrolle zur Abwehr, Die eidgenössische Fremdenpolizei im Spannungsfeld von

Politik und Wirtschaft 1915-1933 (Zürich: Chronos, 1997). [German]

[23] Simon Erlanger, Patrick Kury, and Barbara Lüthi, Grenzen setzen. Vom Umgang mit Fremden in der Schweiz und den USA (1890-1950) (Köln: Böhlau, 2005). [German]

[24] See Simon Erlanger, Nur ein Durchgangsland: Arbeitslager und Internierungsheime für Flüchtlinge und Emigranten in der Schweiz 1940-1949; (Zürich: Chronos Verlag, 2006).

[25] See Simon Erlanger, “Muslims and Jews in Switzerland,” Changing Jewish Communities, 37, 15 October 2008.

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Simon Erlanger is a journalist and historian. He was born in Switzerland and educated in Basel; Alon Shvut, Israel; and Jerusalem. A former employee of the Yad Vashem Archives in Jerusalem, he presently teaches Jewish history at the University of Lucerne. He also works as an editor and producer for Telebasel, a television station for northwestern Switzerland.