The first recorded evidence of a Jewish presence in Switzerland dates back to the 13th century. During the 17th century, a number of villages banned Jews, and by the late 1700s Jews were restricted to only the two villages of Lengnau and Oberendingen. By the end of the 18th century, the 553 Jews inhabitants of these two small villages represented practically the entire Swiss Jewish population. There were severe restrictions on the professions in which Jews were allowed work.
Following Napoleon’s invasion in 1798 and the establishment of the Helvetic Republic, the French attempted to enforce the emancipation of Swiss Jewry, a move that largely failed. In 1802, the population revolted and turned against the Jews. Mobs looted the Jewish villages of Endingen and Lengnau in the so-called Zwetschgenkrieg ("Plum war"). Napoleon lacked the troops to put down the insurgency. In 1803, seeking a peaceful resolution, he issued the Act of Mediation, a compromise which halted the granting of rights to the Jews. By the mid-19th century, the village of Endingen had about 2,000 inhabitants, about half Jews and half Christians.
As time went by, Jews were able to live in other parts of Switzerland, and the Swiss Jewish communities were largely autonomous, maintaining their own schools. In 1862, the Jewish community of Zürich, the Israelitische Cultusgemeinde Zürich (ICZ) was founded, and in 1884, the Zürich Synagogue was built at the Löwenstrasse. In 1879, a Jewish village of Neu-Endingen was built. It remained mostly independent until 1883 when it merged back into the village of Endingen. However, the right to settle freely was not restored to Jews with the Swiss constitution of 1848, and was only granted with the revised constitution of 1874.
In 1876, the Jews were granted full equality and civil rights. However, only 16 years later, shechita (ritual slaughter) was banned, a severe blow to religious freedom. Since then, despite repeated efforts to repeal the law, all kosher meat consumed in Switzerland has come from abroad.
The inaugural congress of the Zionist Organization (which would become the World Zionist Organization (WZO) in 1960) took place in Basel, Switzerland from August 29 to August 31 1897. Switzerland was also the birthplace of the World Jewish Congress, which held its founding plenary in Geneva from August 8 to August 15, 1936. During the tragic years of the Second World War, the WJC made efforts to rescue European Jewry through its office in Geneva. It was from there that, in August 1942, WJC representative, Dr. Gerhart M. Riegner sent his famous cable providing news of the German plan to annihilate European Jewry.
During the late 19th to early 20th century, many Jews from Alsace, Germany and Eastern Europe immigrated to Switzerland.
Many famous Jews to have lived in Switzerland, including the writer Albert Cohen, poet Elias Canetti, violinist Yehudi Menuhin, and composer Ernest Bloch. The most famous of all notable Jews to have lived in Switzerland was Albert Einstein, who was raised in the country, obtained his Doctorate in Physics from the renowned Federal Polytechnic Academy in Zurich and was employed as examiner at the Swiss patent office. In 1999, Ruth Dreifuss became the first Jewish president of Switzerland.