Swiss Jews demand tough government action against right-wing extremism

The new President of the Federation of Swiss Jewish Communities, Alfred Donath, has accused the government of being too lenient towards right-wing extremists for too long.

This content was published on September 4, 2000 - 09:54

He was speaking in Geneva on the European Day of Jewish Culture, in which Swiss Jewish communities participated for the first time.

Donath made his remarks in an interview with swissinfo. He said Switzerland was finally following the example of Germany and taking tougher action to combat right-wing extremism.

He added that he hoped intended to raise the issue in a forthcoming meeting with the justice minister, Ruth Metzler. "Switzerland hasn't had a Nazi party since the Second World War. We hope the government will do what is necessary so that there will never be one", he said.

Donath, a 68-year-old professor of nuclear medicine at Geneva university, succeeded Rolf Bloch as president of the Federation of Swiss Jewish Communities this summer. Bloch led the Federation throughout the political debate over the Holocaust and Switzerland's role in the Second World War.

Donath said the debate had now entered a "quieter" phase "but wasn't over yet". He expressed satisfaction that his organisation now has more time to deal with cultural and social matters apart from politics.

"Anti-Semitism has often developed because people didn't know about the Jews in their midst," he said. "We want to change that, and the European Day of Jewish culture is an excellent opportunity to do that."

Activities during the day centred on Geneva, Zurich and Basel, where most of Switzerland's 18,000 Jews live, as well as the villages of Endlingen and Lengnau in canton Aargau, where Swiss Jews had to settle before their emancipation in the 19th century.

Events included guided historic tours of cemeteries and former Jewish districts. The day ended with speeches, sermons and music in the local synagogues.

The history of Jews in Switzerland is as diverse as that of the different cantons where they settled.

Carouge, today a part of Geneva, was an independent town founded by the King of Sardinia in the late 18th century. To boost its economy, King Victor-Amadeus III pursued a tolerant policy towards Jews, who soon settled in the town.

When Carouge became part of Geneva, and Geneva of Switzerland in 1815 to 1816, Jews drifted into the centre of the city, but their situation was precarious until liberal settlement laws were introduced around 1850.

Jewish communities in Switzerland participated for the first time on Sunday in the Europe-wide day of events, labelled the European Day of Jewish Culture by the Council of Europe. It saw Swiss synagogues filled with non-Jews, perhaps for the first time since they were built.

In Geneva's Beth Yaacov synagogue, 95-year-old chief Rabbi Alexandre Safran spoke about the common purpose of Jewish and Christian religions, which was to "occupy the unexplainable, which in spite of all the scientific advances will always remain unexplained".

There are probably few people who have a greater experience of the changing faith of European Jewish communities than Safran. Before he arrived in Geneva in 1948, he was chief Rabbi in Bucharest during the era of Romanian fascism and the Second World War.

by Markus Haefliger

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