Sunday, July 13, 2008

History lesson: Swiss antisemitism

Jewish history in Switzerland reads pretty much like any other of their history in any other European country (with the possible exceptions of Holland, Denmark and maybe Italy). Blood libels, defamation, special markings, restrictions to money-lending as the only way of making a living, heavy taxation, ghettoizing, expulsions, etc etc.

The Holocaust

Prior to and during the Second World War, Switzerland gave refuge to about 23,000 Jewish refugees although the government decided that Switzerland would serve only as a country of transit. These Jews were protected during the Holocaust due to Swiss neutrality. The Jewish refugees, however, did not receive the financial support from the government that non-Jewish refugees received. Many more Jews were prevented from entering, effectively shutting the border. The Swiss government persuaded Germany to stamp "J" on the passport of Jews, making it easier to refuse Jewish refugees. The end of the war had delivered many thousands of Jews into the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators. In 1942, the Swiss police issued a regulation that denied refugee status to "refugees only on racial grounds, e.g., Jews." By the end of the war, less then 25,000 Jews were permitted to take refuge. Most of the refugees left Switzerland at the end of the war. More then 30,000 Jews were turned away according to a 25-volume study on Switzerland's role during World War II completed in 2002.

In the past few years, Switzerland has had to owe up to its behavior during the
Holocaust. In 1996, Swiss President Kastar Villiger formally apologized to world Jewry for their 1938 accord with the Nazis and its wartime actions against the Jews. At the same time, however, he downplayed economic cooperation between Switzerland and Nazi Germany. It transpired that numerous documents relating to Jewish property in Swiss banks disappeared during the 1940s and 1950s and there was significant pressure in the 1990s and early-21st century to rectify and compensate Holocaust victims and their heirs who were denied their assets in Swiss banks.


The infamous J-stamp and Swiss complicity in Nazi crimes (here)

Swiss officials were involved, when Germany introduced a new stamp (a red J) to mark passports of Jews.

Switzerland did reject between 20,000 to 25,000 Jewish refugees at the border, even after the government (not necessarily the population) was informed, that the Nazis would not only send them to labour camps but rather murder them systematically.

Swiss diplomats in Germany and occupied territories did not enough to defend the rights of Swiss citizens living there, especially if these Swiss citizens were Jews.

The main responsibility for the shortcomings lies with the government, the administration and to a lesser extent with the right wing majority of the parliament, supporting the hard line of the government.

There was also widespread fear among the population, that refugees would aggravate the shortage on food (see rationing and "cultivation battle"). These feelings were not based on sober statistics, however: the total of rejected refugees would have increased the total population by only 0.6 %!

On the other hand, there were many people in Switzerland supporting refugees on a personal level, giving money to non-government organizations like the "Christlicher
Friedensdienst" [Christian Peace Service], and supporting petitions in favour of refugees. A few individuals even helped refugees to cross the border at times the administration had given orders to reject any new refugees. Some of these people were caught and sentenced to jail - only recently between 1990 and 2003 they were rehabilitated by the parliament and/or courts.

The Discriminating "Jew Stamp"

From 1933 to 1938 the German Nazi regime introduced several measures discriminating Jews. The restrictions taken in 1938 were especially severe, so that many Jews considered to leave Germany. The Swiss authorities wanted to restrict immigration and discussed ways to do so with the Germans. Finally Germany decided to mark passports of Jews with a stamp ("J") in October 1938. There is a broad controversy (also on internet) about who is responsible for this discriminating idea. These are the really important facts: The Swiss authorities wanted to know, whether a person trying to enter Switzerland was of Jewish origin or not, and they didn't want to find out themselves - much like the U.S. administration is nowadays interested, whether a person flying from Europe to the U.S.A. is of Arab origin or not, and forces carriers to deliver personal informations about passengers (see reports in the European press in March and again in December 2003). Today's Swiss government acknowledges that Switzerland had it's share in the affair with the J-stamp and publicly apologized on 8th March 1995 - knowing that there is no excuse for collaboration with regimes like the Nazis.

(see answer of the Swiss government to a parliamentary interpellation: Antwort des Bundesrates auf die parlamentarische Anfrage 98.3447 von Ständerat Maximilian Reimann vom 7. 10. 1998). Nothing remains to be added to this official statement.


That's a pretty shameful history, and one that has not materially changed in more recent years:

Disgust over rising Swiss anti- Semitism has cast a shadow over the much-publicized release of names on dormant bank accounts from the Nazi era.

"Keep your money," Israel Singer, the secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress, told the Swiss in a pique of sarcasm during a news conference Wednesday. "The lists published today are not important if the 18,000-member Jewish minority of this country should suffer from anti-Semitism."

Singer continued: "We know that the Jewish people in [Switzerland] are again afraid. If this is the price of our efforts to bring justice to the Holocaust victims, I feel shame for the Swiss people."

Elan Steinberg, the WJC's executive director, emphasized that Singer was not really telling the Swiss to keep the Jewish money -- he was telling them to stop anti-Semitism.

"They have to fight anti-Semitism and turn over the money," Steinberg said from his New York office.

"The Swiss government is responsible for the safety of the Swiss Jewish community," he continued, adding that Swiss Jews "will not be held hostage for this money."

..."It is not money alone that we have come for, it is the issue of moral restitution."

That was in 1998.


In 2000,

A survey in Switzerland suggests that anti-semitism remains deeply rooted in the country. It indicates that 16% of Swiss people are fundamentally anti-semitic, while 60% have anti-semitic sympathies. The US and Swiss Jewish organisations behind the survey say it shows the wave of anti-semitism that hit Switzerland in 1998 over the return of dormant bank accounts to Holocaust survivors has not died down.

And more recently:

In a poll of 540 Jews conducted by the Swiss Jewish weekly Tachles in early September 2003, 58 percent said the situation in Switzerland had worsened for the country’s Jews, 40 percent saw no change and 2 percent claimed an improvement. In the German-speaking part, the first figure was 66 percent and in the Romansh Canton, 49 percent. Personally heard antisemitic remarks rose from 11 percent in 1997 to 18 percent in 2002. Eighty-four percent noted hostility in the press toward Israel, 74 percent on TV and 56 percent on radio.

As a result of the deterioration of the Swiss attitude toward Israel and toward Jews in general, the Jewish community has adopted a higher profile, responding more often and more strongly. For example, Swiss Jews conducted a media campaign to denounce the biased coverage of the events in Jenin (see ASW 2001/2), writing dozens of letters to editors questioning journalistic ethics, buying advertising space in newspapers to have their opinion heard, and meeting with editors-in-chief and reporters to discuss concrete examples of ethical and professional breaches in published stories. In April 2002 over 200 students of the Jewish Students Association in Zurich demonstrated against increasing manifestations of racism and antisemitism in Europe.

At the annual meeting of the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities, the president, Alfred Donath, accused Switzerland of indirectly funding Palestinian textbooks with anti-Zionist and antisemitic content. He was immediately attacked by the press and the public, and received scores of hate mail and threats. Swiss radio tried to investigate the issue further, but was unable to clarify the final destination of Swiss humanitarian aid to the Palestinians through UNRWA.

History, they say, repeats itself. Not quite. History works her way in subterfuge and its main figures reappear in different and new guises. So we are misled to believe that it's not the same, what happened cannot happen again. Yet it does happen, again and again.

In a Hebrew play I just finished reading, one of the characters, a person bent under a load of Holocaust-survivor guilt, tells a young Israeli: If three quarters of humanity were to be wiped out by some evil, the remaining quarter will somehow make excuses for it, make peace with that event and continue in its perfidious evil ways as though nothing happened.

(H/T to H, whose misrepresentation (or ignorance) of history prompted this timely reminder)


At 11:31 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Canada was just as bad as Switzerland, if not worse, and had none of the excuses. After the war had ended the Canadian PM McKenzie King proclaimed a "not even one Jew" immigration policy and refused to allow any Jewish refugees to settle in the vast territories of his country. Canada's doors were, however, opened wide to a host of war criminals and Nazi collaborators, who were given sanctuary and immunity from punishment lasting to this day.

At 7:01 AM EDT, Blogger The Contentious Centrist said...

Anon: Your information is faulty.

"Canada likes to think of itself as a sanctuary for the oppressed. But, as we see in this CBC Television clip, the Canadian government did everything in its power to bar the door to European Jews trying to flee Nazi persecution. Irving Abella, co-author of the new book None Is Too Many, argues that Canada did less than other Western countries to help the Jews despite mounting reports of Adolf Hitler's genocide.

Small countries managed to rescue 15,000 to 20,000 Jews, compared to 4,000 to 5,000 for Canada, says Abella. "It was a hideous, shameful, disgraceful record," says the Toronto-based history professor. At the heart of the closed-door policy was Frederick Charles Blair, the head of immigration in the Mackenzie King administration. In one letter, Blair compared Jews clamouring to get into the country to hogs at feeding time. But he couldn't have acted alone.

Abella says his three-year search of official records showed that Mackenzie King, the wartime prime minister, and Vincent Massey, Canada's high commissioner to Britain, supported a tight cap on the number of Jewish immigrants. Saul Sigler, a Toronto businessman, tells the CBC he tried in vain to get his brother and sister into Canada. Blair's response, according to Sigler? "Why don't you people learn to live with your neighbours wherever you are? Why are you hated?"

More here:


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