Behind the Headlines the Jews of Switzerland
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Behind the Headlines the Jews of Switzerland

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Like Switzerland itself, for centuries a traditionally neutral haven while wars periodically ravaged the rest of Europe, no basic changes have taken place in the peaceful life of the Swiss Jewish community; nor has it grown much. One hundred years ago there were 20,000 Jews in Switzerland. Today there are 24,500.

They live mainly in the five major cities. They keep a low profile. Most are engaged in business. They stay away from public life.

But some of the concerns shared by Jews in many other parts of the world are beginning to intrude here. These include new manifestations of anti-Semitism, a somewhat ambiguous attitude toward Israel by the Swiss government, and the rising wave of intermarriage. This year mixed marriages accounted for 55.7 percent of all marriages entered into by Jews.

The signs of anti-Semitism follow a pattern familiar in neighboring countries: desecration of Jewish cemeteries; a swastika painted in an elevator in the building housing the Israeli Consulate in Zurich; an Israeli dentist assaulted and wounded in Geneva.


Foreign Minister Pierre Auber aroused indignation among Jews when he received Farouk Kaddoumi, the Palestine Liberation Organization’s foreign policy spokesman earlier this year. The Swiss Foreign Ministry refused to sign a welfare agreement with Israel because it would have had to be signed in Jerusalem.

On the other hand, the Defense Ministry contracted to buy weapons from Israel’s military industry for 36 million Swiss Francs. Israel Bonds sell well in Switzerland; $4.8 million worth have been sold this year.

On the local level, the Jewish community in Zurich is proud of its new school, “Noam,” which opened this year. It has eight primary classes and an initial enrollment of 34 children. The Zurich community has also opened a school for retarded Jewish children. It has an enrollment of 50.


But according to Rabbi Mordechai Piron, who recently arrived from Israel to take the post of Chief Rabbi of Zurich, the major problem of Swiss Jews is intermarriage. To tackle the problem, an office was opened in Zurich to serve all Europe. It is called, unabashedly, “AMI–International Matrimonial Agency.” It organizes special “weekends” where young people — ages 20-35 — meet to discuss “Jewish matters.”

The Jews of Zurich also try to establish contacts with Jewish communities in the Eastern European bloc. It already has ties with Chief Rabbi Moses Rosen of Rumania and through his influence, hopes to contact other eastern countries. The Swiss Jewish Committee for Jews in the USSR has already made several appeals on behalf of Soviet Jews seeking to emigrate.

Zurich has the largest Jewish community in the country, numbering 6,500. There are 3,100 in Geneva; 2,600 in Basel; 2,100 in Bern, and 1,300 in Lausanne. The rest are scattered among the 23 cantons. The smallest Jewish community is in the Canton of Uri. There are six Jews there, not enough for a minyan.

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