Over the last three centuries, the Swiss Confederation, with its spectacular alpine beauty and prosperous economy, has attracted aspiring immigrants including many Jews.
Over the last three centuries, the Swiss Confederation, with its spectacular alpine beauty and prosperous economy, has attracted aspiring immigrants including many Jews. In the mid-1970s, I went to Zürich to study German in response to a job offer. It took me a while to adjust to this somewhat insular fortress nation with its stringent rules and high standards. One of the first things I had to do was to surrender my passport to the Fremden Polizei (Foreigner Police) department at Zürich’s City Hall. These rather draconian rules were established to protect the country from an invasion of foreigners. In those days, 20% of the population were foreign citizens; today that number has risen to 25%. I knew very little about Swiss Jews when I first arrived there. I ended up meeting and marrying a Swiss Jewish woman in Zürich.
My ex-wife (now sadly deceased) came from a long line of Ashkenazi Jews who could trace their origins to Switzerland of the mid-18th century. Jews have lived in Switzerland for well over 1000 years. Purportedly, Jews came to the region with the Roman armies and were responsible for supplying them with horses. The territory was part of the Roman Empire for six centuries from 2 CE to 5 CE. The first communities settled in Basel in 1214. Today there are around 20,000 Jews living in Switzerland, the 10th largest Jewish community in Europe. The majority of Jews live in Zürich, followed by Geneva and Basel. The communities of Zürich and Basel follow Ashkenazi customs, while Geneva has a large population of French speakers who follow Sephardi rites.
To this day, Swiss society is ultra-conservative and any form of radical change is not easily embraced. Women in Switzerland only achieved the right to vote in federal elections after a referendum was held in 1971. It has taken the Swiss almost as long to accord equal rights to its Jewish citizens. Soon after Napoleon invaded Switzerland and established the Helvetic Republic in 1798, life began to improve for the Jews. Approximately 200 years later, in 1999, Ruth Dreifuss became the first woman and first Jewish president of the country. Despite the country’s medieval history of virulent antisemitism, persecution and pogroms, life was not always that bad for Jews in Switzerland.
In 2000, my American wife and I happened to be in Zürich when friends of ours took us to see an extraordinary site in the Old Town one Sunday afternoon. It seems that a Zürich resident was renovating his rather prestigious town house at number 8 Brunngasse. During the renovations the builders discovered a series of murals dating back to the year 1330. Much to his amazement the murals depicted men and women, seemingly aristocratic figures dressed in their finery and sporting their coats of arms. Upon further inspection they discovered Hebrew inscriptions written on the banners that were displayed on the coats of arms. I remember the guide telling us that the Jews who lived in the house were involved in “international finance” with clients that included noble European families some of whom were depicted in the murals. The archaeological find at the time provoked great interest and the owner of the house generously agreed to preserve the murals and allow the public access to see these extraordinary relics of Zürich’s ancient Jews. We were also taken to a site a few meters away from the house where an ancient Mikveh (ritual bath) was found, probably used by the family who lived in the house at Brunngasse. The word Brunn in German means “well” or “spring,” indicating that the house was built near a natural source of water. Some 19 years later in 1349, the same Jews of Zürich were accused of poisoning the wells and hundreds were burned at the stake in both Zürich and Basel.
By the 1620s, Jews were banished from all Swiss cantons and it was only in 1776 that Jews were allowed back into the country ushering in a Renaissance of Jewish life in Switzerland. They were given permission to live in the Surbtaler Valley in what is now Canton Aargau in just two villages, Lengnau and Oberendingen (now known as Endingen). My ex-wife’s family came from Lengnau. Even though she was born in the Canton of Zürich, her identity documents referred to her and the rest of the family as coming from Lengnau. Jewish family surnames such as Bloch, Bollag, Guggenheim, Wyler, Dreyfuss and Brunschvig were associated with the Surbtaler Jews of Endingen and Lengnau.
At the end of the 18th century, there were some 550 Jews living in these two villages, representing the entire Jewish population of Switzerland. When the villages were established, the Jews were not allowed to bury their dead on Swiss soil. They were allocated a burial place on an island in the middle of the Rhine River. It was known as Judenäule (“Jews’ island”) which often got flooded and made it difficult for the Chevra Kadisha (burial society) to carry out their holy duties of burying the dead.
Eventually in 1750, the Jews were allowed to buy woodland on a hill between Endingen and Lengnau. Both Lengnau and Endingen had their own synagogues. The Jewish residents of the two towns were constrained in terms of the professions they could follow. Houses were constructed with two separate entrances, one for gentiles and one for Jews. Jews from the towns had to pay special taxes including a “firewood” tax.
Sadly, the Napoleonic era did not bring full emancipation to the Jews of Switzerland. Swiss reformers tried to emancipate the Jews in the new Helvetic parliament but were unsuccessful. In Aargau in 1802, a mob looted the two Jewish villages and not much was done to protect the Jewish residents. Napoleon had other priorities. He depended on the Swiss for supplying regiments for his campaigns and he ended up passing the Act of Mediation in 1803 guaranteeing that no further rights would be granted to Jewish citizens.
By the mid-19th century, things began to change for the better and Jews began to leave setting their sights on Zürich and Basel. Today there are fewer than 12 Jewish people living in the Surbtal region. Nevertheless, the synagogues and cemetery are well preserved and meticulously maintained. It was only in 1874 after the constitution was revised, that the Jews were given free rights to settle anywhere in the country.
Despite this, shechita (Jewish ritual slaughter) was prohibited. In 1886, certain organizations launched a campaign against cruelty to animals and demanded that the government forbid kosher slaughter. The campaign succeeded and shechita was forbidden in Switzerland. The prohibition still exists and has not been lifted. By this time Jews from Germany and the neighboring Alsace region began to arrive. Jews were also fleeing the pogroms of Eastern Europe. Many tried to find refuge in Switzerland. They were called Ostjuden (Eastern Jews) and were looked down upon by the existing Swiss Jewish communities. There is a viewpoint that the ban on ritual slaughter was aimed at preventing further immigration.
The Jews entered the professions and began to do well as lawyers, doctors, bankers, commodity traders, entrepreneurs, and successful business people. The Jews from Lengnau and Endingen did particularly well and are considered to be the crème de la crème of Swiss Jewish society. To this day, they are very proud of their heritage and are extremely loyal to the Swiss Confederation. For the most part they are also Zionists. After all the very first World Zionist Congress was held in 1897 in Basel, an event that took place in that same city on 10 subsequent occasions.
During the Holocaust 23,000 Jews found temporary shelter in Switzerland, but 35,000 were turned away. The country remained neutral during the war, yet the Swiss treated Jewish refugees differently. They persuaded the Germans to stamp the letter “J” on German and Austrian Jewish passports to make it easier for the immigration authorities to deny them entry.
Today Swiss Jews enjoy a relatively good existence in the country. Jewish life is mainly centered in Zürich followed by Basel and Geneva. The communities are quite diverse from Orthodox to Reform, as well as Conservative and Sephardic. Swiss Jews are generally very pro-Israel and have contributed their time and money to philanthropic causes in the Jewish state. They speak different dialects of Swiss German and High German. Many also speak French and are familiar with Italian. Their Ashkenazi forebears also spoke a distinctive type of Yiddish peppered with Hebrew and Swiss German words.
Assimilation and aliyah are the two main reasons why the Jewish population has not increased. There are around 11,000 Swiss Jews living in Israel today. In the last few decades, antisemitism has begun to resurface in the country. A survey conducted in 2014 found that one in four Swiss residents are antisemitic. The dislike for Jews stems from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and all the biased media coverage that goes with it. Back in the late 1990s a new issue surfaced.
At the time, the international media drew attention to Switzerland’s actions during World War II. Articles began to appear which exposed how the Swiss banking institutions concealed and withheld information about the lost assets of Holocaust victims. The controversy widened as myths of Switzerland’s impeccable record during the war were exploded. This was not well received by the government or the people and resulted in a number of public inquiries being launched to examine the facts. This in turn led to a new wave of uninhibited racist and antisemitic views being expressed in both the media and in Swiss society in general.
In 2020, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the country still maintains its reputation as one of the most resilient and stable economies in the world. No wonder then that it’s Jewish citizens are keen to hold onto their residency and Swiss passports.