Switzerland has had a settled Jewish community since the 13th century. In 1213, Basel was one of the largest Jewish communities in Europe. The community was made up of Jews mostly from Germany and France. Jews settled in Bern by 1259, St. Gall in 1268, Zurich in 1273, Schaffhausen, Diessenhofen, and Luzerne in 1299. The Basel community flourished until 1348 when they were accused of poisoning wells during the Black Death.
The Jews underwent a diverse variety of tortures and persecutions during this time. Six hundred Jews were burned at the stake and the community was dissolved in 1349. The Jews of Basel were burned on an island in the Rhine on January 9, 1349. Their children were spared from the burning but were forcibly baptized instead. The first Swiss persecution of the Jews took place in Bern, where the Jewish community was accused of having murdered a Christian boy named Rudolf (Ruff). They were expelled from Bern but then allowed to return shortly after.
In the fourteenth century, Jews from Alsace, Ulm, Nuremberg, France, and various southern German cities began to settle in Neuchâtel, Biel, Vevay, Pruntrut, Solothurn, Winterthur, Zofingen, and various places in Aargau and Thurgau. During this time, the Jews of Switzerland were regarded as Kammerknechte (in English, Chamber farmhands) of the Holy Roman Empire and were under their protection if they paid an annual tribute. In some towns, they instead had acquired the Judenregal (right of protecting the Jews and imposing taxes on them). Beginning in the early fourteenth century, several towns granted Jews citizenship. Citizenship, however, did not grant the same rights as Swiss Christians, instead merely granting municipal protection to the Jews and requiring them to pay certain sums to be permitted to live in their cities. Foreign Jews had to pay certain fees to the municipality to remain even for a few days.
Like most of Europe during the Middle Ages, the Jews were almost exclusively confined to money lending, advancing funds to all strata of society. Of course, their actions were not without restriction. The Jews, while being permitted to live in Switzerland and engage in some form of job, were hated and ostracized. Jews were required to wear the Judenhut (or Jew’s hat), with the occasional exemption of Jewish physicians. As their principal occupation was money lending, when the Christian inhabitants were in debt to the moneylenders, the Jews were blamed and tortured or expelled. Expulsions and persecutions occurred repeatedly. Because of the prohibition against usury the Jews could not be gone for long or else the economic functioning of Swiss society would have ceased. Jews were also required to live in certain neighborhoods and reside on certain streets. Their infrastructure, such as slaughterhouses, synagogues, mikvot, and cemeteries were located in these neighborhoods. Jews had to pay high taxes for these privileges, particularly for their cemeteries.
While most of the Jews were expelled in 1349 from Switzerland, they had already returned to Zurich by 1352 and Basel by 1361. Their return did not herald an end to persecutions and maltreatment continued until the Jewish community was again expelled. Accused of blood libel, all of the Jews living at Schaffhausen were condemned to death and thirty were burned alive on June 25, 1401. Four weeks later, eighteen men and women were burned at the stake in Winterthur. The Jews of Zurich, though, were safeguarded. A church edict in 1434 requiring attendance by Jews at proselytizing sermons effectively ensured that there would not be another Jewish community in Basel for four-hundred years. They were banished from the city and canton of Bern in 1427, from Freiburg in 1428, from Zurich in 1436, from Schaffhausen in 1472, from Rheinau in 1490, from Thurgau in 1494 and from Basel in 1543. Despite these expulsions, a few Jews found their way back into Switzerland during these years. A few Jews were admitted in the sixteenth century when Christian printers in Basel began printing Hebrew texts. They needed Jews to proofread these texts and therefore acquired hundreds of residency permits for Jews.
A Jewish community in Geneva was established by the end of the 18th century. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia online, The modern history of the Geneva community begins with the year 1783, when a number of Lorraine Jews settled in the suburb Carouge, which belonged to the Duke of Savoy until he ceded it to Geneva in 1816.
The lives of Jews began to improve after Napoleon invaded in 1798. Some settled in Geneva and enjoyed complete freedom until 1815, when French rule ceased. The law of November 14, 1816, forbade Jews from owning land in the canton. They did not receive civic equality again until 1841. Two years later, the first Jews were naturalized and granted full religious liberty.
For several decades, the few Jews who lived in Geneva worshiped in Carouge, where the old synagogue still exists. In 1857, the law of Nov. 14, 1816, was repealed, and all the Jews who lived in Carouge were enfranchised. They opened a synagogue in 1859 on land contributed by the city with Joseph Wertheimer as their rabbi. The old cemetery at Carouge was later expanded by the community.
|The old Jewish cemetery
|The newer section of the cemetery
In 1622, at the diet of thirteen cantons, all Jews except for physicians were expelled from all of Switzerland except two villages in the Aargau canton. Aargau did not join the Swiss Confederation until 1803, which allowed Jews to escape the expulsion order. Jews were not allowed to return until 1776 and the entire population, 550 by the end of the 18th century, lived in the villages of Lengnau and Oberendingen (Endingen). The Jews were not allowed to build a cemetery in the towns, instead burying their dead on what became known as Judenäule (“Jews’ island”) in the middle of the Rhine River.
The drive to emancipation was a long and hard battle, though generally resembling the patterns of the rest of Western Europe. Prior to emancipation Jews were generally considered resident aliens and required special permission to marry, and their business activities were heavily regulated. Buildings were constructed with two entrances, one for Jews and another for non-Jews. They also did not receive the same type of financial assistance for their schools that the rest of Swiss society received.
In the Great Council of Helvetia during 1798-1799 several of the liberal-minded men advocated full civic equality for the Jews. Limited progress was made toward emancipation. In 1803, the Act of Mediation limited the rights of Jews to those granted to that point. The ambassadors of France, England, and the United States insisted that all citizens should be granted full settlement rights, regardless of creed but full religious freedom was granted only in 1874 with the passage of the confederal constitution. Switzerland was one of the last Western European countries to grant Jews emancipation. In fact, the only countries to provide emancipation later were Spain and Portugal in 1918.
During the French Revolution, Basel temporarily allowed a number of Jews in, officially forming a community in 1805. By 1864, the Basel Jewish community had grown to 300 souls, however, between then and emancipation, they were under severe civil and religious restrictions. Contemporary Basel Jews date their community from this time. In 1868 the single-domed synagogue was built. After full civil rights were granted in 1874 the Jewish community experienced significant growth.
The First Zionist Congress was held in Basel in 1897. It was originally supposed to be held in Germany but was moved to Basel because of rabbinical protests in Germany. In his diary Theodor Herzl wrote, “To summarize the Basel Congress in one sentence - which I shall be careful not to pronounce publicly - it is this: I have founded the Jewish state in Basel.” It was Herzl’s wish to center the Zionist movement in Basel, with a special congress building there, but his wish was never realized. However, Basel was the host of nine more congresses: including the second, attended by Chaim Weizmann, the sixth - in which the Uganda plan was proposed, the tenth - the first conducted in Hebrew, and the twenty-second - the last held outside of Israel in 1946. At the Congress in 1929, held in Switzerland, the Jewish Agency was formed.
Many Jews from Alsace and Eastern Europe immigrated to Switzerland in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In 1903, a Jewish cemetery was opened in Basel. Between then and 1947, several other synagogues were built. In 1947, the Great Synagogue (originally built in 1868) was restored. In 1972, the Jewish community of Basel was the first Jewish community in Switzerland to be recognized as a sanctioned corporation. In 1996, the Basel Jewish community numbered 1655 people.
In April 2012, a packed house of rabbis, diplomats, government officials, and Jewish community members presided over an historic dedication of the first synagogue to open in Basel since 1929. The synagogue, called the Feldinger Chabad Jewish Center, was backed by philanthropist and international businessman Sami Rohr to honor the memory of Shlomo Zalman and Recha Feldinger, who at the height of World War II provided a loving home to the young refugee.
Despite the constitution of 1874 granting full religious equality, certain religious requirements were still forbidden. In 1886, the Aargau Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals called for the government to prohibit ritual slaughter (shechitah). A year later, the Jews of Baden petitioned the government to allow ritual slaughter according to Jewish law (halakha). The Swiss government upheld the prohibition against kosher slaughter, ruling that, while it may impinge on religious freedom, it was indispensable to prevent cruelty to animals. The issue was brought to referendum and, in August 1893, an article was inserted into the Swiss confederal constitution declaring ritual slaughter illegal throughout the whole of Switzerland. That ban continues to this day.
The Jewish community of Switzerland has fought as late as 2002 and 2003 to reverse the ban on kosher slaughter but have not been successful after over a century in the face of constant protests by European animal rights groups. In 2002, the Swiss government promised Swiss Jewish leaders that they would not prevent the importation of more-expensive kosher meat but would not allow cheaper domestic slaughter. This compromise does not please the Jewish community. Alfred Donath, president of the Jewish Federations, said the law forbidding kosher slaughter is discriminatory and a violation of human rights and religious freedom. Samuel Debrot, president of the Vaud section of the Society for the Protection of Animals, stated that Jews and Muslims should “either become vegetarians or leave the country.”
Another prominent opponent to ritual slaughter is Erwin Kessler, president of Verein gegen Tierfabrik (Association against Animal Factories) who was convicted of hate crimes against the Jews, among others, and is known to affiliate with Holocaust deniers. He has previously compared ritual slaughter to the Nazi treatment of Jews.
From emancipation onwards, Switzerland became a major haven for the Russian Jewish intellectual circle. Imbibing Western ideals about freedom, Switzerland helped shape the ideology of these Russian Jewish intellectuals. Chaim Weizmann wrote of his university days in 1898:
If Russian Jewry was the cradle of my Zionism, the Western universities were my finishing schools. The first of these schools was Berlin, with its Russian-Jewish society; the second was Bern, the third Geneva, both in Switzerland.
Around this time, prominent Jews who would become leaders of the Russian Revolution such as Georgi Valentinovich Plekhanov, Marxist philosopher and leader of the Russian Social Democratic movement, and Leon Trotsky, were also in Switzerland. Albert Einstein spent his youth in Switzerland and received his doctorate from Federal Polytechnic Academy in Zurich and was employed by the Swiss patent office. Ze’ev Jabotinsky also studied law in Switzerland
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 than 25,000 Jews were permitted to take refuge. Most of the refugees left Switzerland at the end of the war. More than 30,000 Jews were turned away according to a 25-volume study on Switzerland’s role during World War II completed in 2002.
Only recently has Switzerland has begun to admit its activities 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.
In 1956, after the Sinai Campaign and Hungarian uprising, the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities looked after Jewish refugees from Egypt and Hungary. In 1968, it also looked after Jews who fled to Switzerland from Czechoslovakia. Switzerland has generally been seen of as supportive toward Israel, while maintaining its noted neutrality. This support was strengthened by an Arab terrorist attack against an El Al plane in Zurich in 1969 and an act of sabotage on a Swissair plane bound for Israel in 1970. However, like in the rest of Europe, anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment has increased since September 2000 according to the Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism and Racism.
According to the 1990 census, 17,577 Jews (0.26% of the total population) reside in Switzerland. While the number of Swiss Jews has remained fairly stable since the early twentieth century, the relative proportion has declined owing partly to emigration, an aging population, and mixed marriages. The largest communities are in Zurich, Basel, Geneva and Vaud, however Jewish communities can be found in all of Switzerland’s major cities. One-third of the total Jewish population is in Zurich. While the population has decreased, the institutional strength of the Jewish community has increased.
The Swiss Jewish population is well organized and united. There is an umbrella organization of more than 23 different Jewish organizations and 17 Jewish communities - The Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities (SIG/FSCI) - that provides a united front for Swiss Jewry. The Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities was founded in 1904 to combat the prohibition against kosher slaughter. By the 1950s and 1960s, the Federation was already working on the issue of dormant accounts assets held by Jews in Swiss banks. The Federation has acted as official representation of the Jewish community in the international investigation of Holocaust assets and Swiss banks. The Federation was also a founder of the World Jewish Congress. The FSCI has a strong Orthodox representation but includes the entire spectrum of the Jewish community in its membership with the exception of the ultra-Orthodox (out of choice) and Reform communities (because the other members have prevented them). Switzerland’s two liberal communities have formed a platform which cooperates with the Federation of Communities on the issues of anti-Semitism and security. Switzerland’s French-speaking Jewish population is represented by the CICAD (Coordination Intercommunautaire Contre l’Antisémitisme et la Diffamation), which has its headquarters in Geneva. CICAD focuses on education, organizing seminars and trips to Auschwitz for teachers, and distributing information and materials to schools. Both SIG and CICAD train high school students to talk to their peers about anti-Semitism and Israel. Both organizations also teamed up to establish Media Watch, an organization which monitors and analyzes Swiss media coverage of issues relating to the Jewish community and works to counter anti-Semitic statements and attempts to delegitimize the State of Israel. Media Watch also collaborates closely with AKdH (Aktion Kinder des Holocaust), which runs the biggest database in Switzerland on subjects of Jewish interest. AKdH also runs a program that seeks to rehabilitate neo-Nazi youngsters from the streets, called “Internet Streetworking.”
The Jewish population is well represented in the textile and clockwork industries as well as manufacturers and wholesalers. Switzerland does not have much Jewish representation in Switzerland’s largest industry -- chemicals. They also do not play a significant role in public banking, but European banking magnate Edmond Safra ran his banking industry from Switzerland for many years and Jews own many private banks in Switzerland. Jews are also not well represented in public service, but Switzerland’s first woman president (January 1, 1999 - January 1, 2000), Ruth Dreifuss, was also Jewish.
Many international Jewish organizations, such as the World Jewish Congress, have offices in Switzerland. Most Jews live in Zurich, followed by Geneva and Basel. These cities have numerous Jewish institutions, youth groups, thriving synagogues, kosher restaurants, Jewish bookstores, and other signs of a flourishing Jewish life.
A man was arrested in Zurich on July 7, 2018, after verbally accosting Jewish children and chasing them in the street while waving a knife, and later chasing and harassing a Jewish family walking to synagogue. According to a Zurich police spokesperson, a man approached the Orthodox Jews and made anti-Semitic remarks. He carried a knife with him. He was obviously very drunk.
A kosher butcher shop in Basel was vandalized four times in October 2018 in what local Jews called an anti-Semitic campaign of intimidation.
Earlier in 2018, the federal government agreed to fund the security costs of Swiss Jews.
There are several very important tourist sites that are a must see! Most important are the Three Kings Hotel in Basel and the Stadtcasino. Theodor Herzl stayed at the Three Kings Hotel in August 1897, during the world’s first Zionist Congress. Besides Herzl, the hotel has also been visited by Napoleon, Dickens, Voltaire, and Metternich. The Congress itself was held at the Stadtcasino — a concert hall. While not officially open to viewing, visitors manage to find their way into the main stage area. To the right of the stage there is a plaque that reads: “On Theodor Herzl’s initiative and under his guidance, the first Zionist organization was established leading to the foundation of the State of Israel.”
Basel also has Switzerland’s only Jewish museum and the Great Synagogue is a national landmark. The Jewish Museum at Kornhausgasse 8 includes an exhibit on Zionism with mementos from the First Zionist Congress. It also includes various Jewish memorabilia from the Jews of Switzerland. The synagogue, first built in 1868, was expanded and renovated several times over the past century-and-a-half. The Great Synagogue, at Leimenstrasse 24, houses two synagogues, a choir, mikveh, and is beautifully designed. Next door to the synagogue is the community center, library, and day school.
Behind the synagogue at Mostackerstrasse 17 stands Victor Goldschmidt’s Jewish bookshop. Another important attraction is Israel Park, a grove of 40 trees, presented by Israeli president Chaim Herzog, that were given to Basel by the JNF/KKL and the State of Israel on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the State.
There is a well that Zurich’s Jews were accused of having poisoned in the Middle Ages which was rediscovered during renovation in 1979. It can be seen parallel to the window of the Guegi framing shop at 15 Predigergasse. The ICZ Building is the center for Zurich’s non-Haredi Jews which houses community services, meeting halls, and a kosher restaurant. It is located at 33 Lavaterstrasse; 41-1-283-2222. The Loewenstrasse Synagogue, dedicated in 1884, is the oldest synagogue in Zurich. It is located at 10 Loewenstrasse, corner of Nueschelerstrasse; 41-1-201-1659. Other synagogues include the Freigutstrasse Synagogue (37 Freigutstrasse; 41-1-201-4998), Agudas Achim Synagogue (8 Erikastrasse; 41-1-463-6798), Chabad (19 Witelikerstrasse; 41-1-386-8403) and several smaller minyanim. The Holocaust Memorial Cemetery is an inscribed stone near the funeral hall of the Upper Friesenberg Jewish cemetery on Friesenbergstrasse.
Original article by Avi Hein.
Knife-wielding man threatens Swiss Jewish family on way to synagogue, JTA, (July 9, 2018);
Antisemitism Worldwide 2001-2002: Switzerland;
Alan M. Tigay, (ed.),
Basel, The Jewish Traveler, Jason Aronson, Inc: 1994;
Oscar Israelowitz, Guide to Jewish Europe, (Brooklyn, NY: Israelowitz Publishing, 1995), p. 321-22;
Basel - Swiss City welcomes Jewish travelers, The Washington Jewish Week;
Abba Eban, Heritage: Civilization and the Jews, Summit Books: 1984;
“First New Synagogue in 80 Years Inaugurated in Basel," E-Jewish Philanthropy (April 19, 2012);
Independent Commission of Experts;
International Jewish Cemetery Project - Switzerland;
Israelitische Gemeinde Basel (IGB) (Jewish Community of Basel);
Jewish Agency for Israel - Department for Jewish Zionist Education;
Jewish Communities of the World: World Jewish Congress;
Jewish Switzerland from WUJS;
Judaism in Switzerland;
Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities;
Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved;
Map from CIA World Factbook 2002;
The Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism and Racism, Annual Report 2005, Switzerland;
“Swiss kosher butcher shop vandalized 4 times in one month,” JTA, (October 24, 2018);
Robert Hersowitz, “The Jews of Switzerland,” Jerusalem Report, (August 3, 2020).
Cemetery photos courtesy of Swissworld.org.