In the Birthplace of Zionism, Jews Still Face Anti-Semitism

If Theodore Herzel, the father of Zionism, were somehow whisked into this century, he would find a Switzerland just coming to terms with its Jewish population.

A bit of a surprise, perhaps, considering Herzel chose Basel in 1897 as the site of the First World Zionist Congress based on its reputation as being more politically open than other European cities.

Yet as Basel prepares to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Zionism - a movement that led to the state of Israel in 1948 - larger questions regarding Switzerland's relationship with Nazi Germany during World War II and a wave of resurgent anti-Semitism threaten to overshadow this event.

Swiss banks are being pressed to account for what they did with money from the accounts of Jews who perished in the Holocaust, as well as looted Nazi gold reportedly deposited in their vaults. High-ranking government officials, including Switzerland's former ambassador to the US, have been called to task for anti-Semitic comments to the press.

While strictly speaking, Zionism's 100th anniversary should be separated from the Swiss banks affair, it's turning out to have everything to do with it, says Thomas Lyssy, one of the event's organizers.

"We're having trouble finding sponsors for this event because of the accounts issue," Mr. Lyssy says. "The banks don't want to give too much because they think that would make them look guilty."

A public voice for the first time

While the bank issue has caused anti-Semitism to erupt here as never before, it has also opened the door for Switzerland's tiny Jewish population, allowing Jews a public voice for the first time, says Jacques Picard, a member of the independent commission established by the government to investigate Switzerland's wartime past.

Some of this new self-confidence for Swiss Jews comes from the younger generation, which has grown up with Israel in the background.

"For the first time the Jewish voice is more clear," says Mr. Picard. "During the 1930s and '40s, anti-Semitism wasn't spoken about.... Now people have to talk about the Jews. But still, since Herzel came to Switzerland, relations have only changed to some degree. Jews here are well integrated but not assimilated."

Perhaps Switzerland wasn't as cruel toward the Jews as was Nazi Germany or Spain during the Inquisition, which began in the 15th century. But the Swiss never welcomed Jews with open arms, says Gabrielle Rosenstein, vice president of the Swiss Federation of the Jewish Community.

Switzerland has always had a small Jewish population. Until the end of 1879, Jews were allowed to live in only two villages: Lengnau and Endingen in northeastern Switzerland. And in the 1930s, the head of the federal police force asked Germany to stamp the passports of German Jews with a "J" in order to identify, and during World War II turn away, Jews seeking refuge in Switzerland. Today there are 18,000 Jews in a country of 7 million.

"We have a different tradition concerning anti-Semitism than some other countries," says Mrs. Rosenstein. "It's always been more latent and more hidden. We never would say anything, and anti-Semitism was accepted by the Jewish population.''

However, in recent weeks this anti-Semitism has come to the surface.

Editorials in local papers questioned the legitimacy of the Jews to question the Swiss government, the Swiss Federation of the Jewish Community has received hundreds of hate letters since the first of the year, and newspaper polls show that at least 44 percent of the country harbors anti-Semitic views.

However, rather than continue with the don't-make-trouble posture that has characterized the Swiss Jewish community's position for so long, Swiss Jews decided to fight back, says Martin Rosenfeld, spokesman for the Swiss Federation of the Jewish Community in Bern. "Today we are aware of our civil rights, and we are ready to fight for our rights," he says.

Support from Swiss non-Jews

To the surprise of many in Switzerland's Jewish community, they are finding they aren't as alone as they thought. On Jan. 21, hundreds of Swiss artists, actors, and authors signed and published a manifesto demanding the government examine its past treatment of Jews and stop anti-Semitism. And last Saturday, hundreds of members of Switzerland's churches gathered before parliament in Bern in an hour-long, silent demonstration to ask for forgiveness and show solidarity with the Jews.

"It is our conviction that as Christians we have a responsibility in this situation, to our insensitive behavior to the Jewish people," said Guy Chautems at the demonstration in Bern. "It's important people know what went on and how we behaved against the Jewish minority."

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