Switzerland

Switzerland, with a Jewish population of 17,500, is the tenth largest Jewish community in Europe. The country’s Jewish presence dates back to the 13th century. Switzerland is notable for being the site of both the First Zionist Congress in 1897, and the founding plenary assembly of the World Jewish Congress in 1936. The Schweizerischer Israelitischer Gemeindebund (Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities) is the Swiss affiliate of the World Jewish Congress.

WJC Affiliate

Switzerland WJC Affiliate Logo

Schweizerischer Israelitischer Gemeindebund (SIG-FSCI)
Fédération suisse des communautés israélites
Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities

Telephone: +41 (0)43 305 07 77
Telefax: +41 (0)43 305 07 66

E-mail: info@swissjews.ch
Website: http://www.swissjews.ch

President: Dr. Herbert Winter, also a WJC vice president
General Secretary: Jonathan Kreutner

Herbert Winter, SIG-FSCI President
& WJC Vice-President


Community News


History

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.

The years of Holocaust

During the Shoah, Jewish citizens were protected by their country's neutrality, but due to its close trade ties with Germany, Switzerland endeavored to prevent the entry of Jewish refugees, including by asking the German authorities to mark the passports of Jews with the letter "J." By the war's end, 25,000 Jews had benefited from Swiss protection, but many thousands of others had been sent back from the Swiss border into the hands of the Nazis and were murdered. In recent years, under pressure from the international community and the World Jewish Congress, Switzerland has been forced to confront its behavior during the Holocaust. Several committees were formed to investigate the issue of Jewish assets deposited in Switzerland as well as the Swiss banking sector’s legacy of collaboration with Nazi Germany.

Demography

Hebrew University demographer Sergio DellaPergola estimated the Swiss Jewish community to number approximately 18,600 as of 2016. The largest communities are in Zurich (6,800), Geneva (4,400) and in Basel (2,600). Jews are also to be found in other cities and towns throughout the Swiss Federation. 61% live in the German-speaking part of the country and 36% in the French-speaking part.

Community Life

The Swiss community is primarily represented by the Schweizerischer Israelitischer Gemeindebund (SIG), founded in 1905 to oppose the restriction on shechita. In 1936, the Schweizerischer Israelitischer Gemeinbund (SIG) was a constituent member at the WJC Plenary in Geneva. The WJC has maintained an office in Geneva since the nineteen thirties.

Religious and Cultural life

Swiss Jewish life is diverse and includes traditional, ultra-Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, and Sephardic Jewish institutions. Zurich has four synagogues, Geneva three, Basel two, and Lugano two. Synagogues are also to be found in Baden, Berne, Fribourg, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Lausanne, Lucerne, Vevey-Montreux, St. Gallen, and Winterthur. Rabbis are employed in Zurich, Geneva, and Basel, where an Orthodox seminary is active. The SIG plays a role in the distribution of kosher food, which, due to the shechita prohibition, is mostly imported. Large numbers of Jewish tourists visit Switzerland throughout the year. As a result, there are hotels that provide kosher facilities.

Jewish Education

There are more than 20 Jewish day schools in Switzerland.

Youth

The Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities (SIG) is responsible for organizing and coordinating youth activities among Switzerland’s Jewish communities. Its youth initiative aims to give Jewish children, teenagers and young adults the opportunity to meet others their own age at social and cultural events, and to further develop and strengthen their own Jewish cultural identity.

Jewish Media

There are 2 weekly newspapers: the German-language Tachles and the French Revue Juive.

Information for visitors

The site of the first Zionist Congress in 1897, is the Musiksaal of the Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois/Hotel drei Könige in Basel. The Jüdisches Museum der Schweiz, the Swiss Jewish Museum, is in Basel. In its courtyard there are tombstones from the 13th century. The Beth Yaacov Synagogue in Geneva, designed in 1857 by Jean-Henri Bachofen, is an architectural marvel. Its Moorish-style exterior features gray and pink stripes, four towers and a central dome topped by the Tablets of the Law. The interior is splendidly ornamented with geometric and floral patterns and has a staircase leading to a preacher’s dais.

Israel

Israel and Switzerland enjoy full diplomatic relations. Switzerland recognized Israel in 1949 and opened a consulate in Tel Aviv, which was upgraded to embassy in 1958. In addition to its embassy in Berne, Israel also maintains a consulate general in Zurich and a representative mission to international organizations in Geneva. Since 1948, 3,220 Swiss Jews have emigrated to Israel.

Embassy of Israel
Alpenstrasse 32
3006 Berne
Tel. 41 31 351 1042
Fax. 41 31 352 7916

Updated

 

April 2018

Sign up to receive our weekly newsletter
The latest from the Jewish world