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Swiss Jews have new leader

Alfred Donath, new president of the Swiss Jewish Confederation

(Keystone)

Alfred Donath, a 68-year-old doctor from Geneva, has been elected president of the Swiss Confederation of Hebrew Congregations. He takes over from Rolf Bloch, who led Switzerland's 18,000-strong Jewish community during its most eventful period.

Donath, who has been the federation's vice-president for the past four years, was elected by its assembly in Geneva on Thursday. He was the only candidate. He will be only the second person from French-speaking Switzerland to head the federation.

He is well aware that many challenges lie ahead of him: "We've just emerged from a very disturbed situation, with the dormant (Holocaust-era) accounts. The Swiss Jews suffered as a result of that, but at the same time more people know about the federation than ever before."

He says the way Switzerland was forced to reappraise its wartime role, and the pressure Swiss banks were put under to reach a settlement with Jews had both a positive and negative impact on the Jewish community.

"In the beginning the government didn't really understand what was going on - and the banks still less so, but now, finally, I think Switzerland has a very positive attitude - wanting the truth to come out, even if it doesn't show a glorious page of Swiss history, " Donath told swissinfo.

"What has changed in the past four or five years is that the anti-Semites have begun to speak up again, and it's now allowed to say that they don't like the Jews," he says.

Donath says three main issues will dominate his presidency: the question of Holocaust-era insurance policies that were not honoured; Jewish-owned art treasures that were stolen and imported into Switzerland before and during the war; and the fate of the Solidarity Foundation, set up with the intention of helping Holocaust survivors.

The new president has nothing but praise for his predecessor, Rolf Bloch, president of the Jewish federation since 1992. Bloch was often portrayed as the voice of reason during the negotiations between the Swiss banks and lawyers of Holocaust survivors and the heirs of victims, and credited with raising the profile of Jews in Switzerland.

"It certainly won't be easy to follow him," Donath says. "He was an excellent president, and a very wise man."

"The World Jewish Congress was very aggressive in negotiations, which is the American way, and that wasn't understood very well in Switzerland. Rolf Bloch did an excellent job in bringing the two sides together," he says.

On Wednesday, the Swiss foreign minister, Joseph Deiss, paid tribute to Bloch at a special ceremony. Deiss praised Bloch's "very constructive" leadership of the Jewish confederation during the struggle for compensation from Swiss banks.

The foreign minister also said the controversy over Switzerland's wartime past had rekindled anti-Semitic sentiment in the country, and that the government was looking at ways of combating anti-Semitism and racism.

Donath was born the son of a rabbi in Yverdon-les-Bains, and has lived in Lausanne, Berne and the United States. Although officially retired, he still occasionally practises nuclear medicine - a branch of radiology - at Geneva's cantonal hospital, where he has worked for almost 30 years. He is also head of a special humanitarian taskforce at the Swiss Foreign Ministry, and plays tennis every day.

by Roy Probert

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