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Swiss Get Jewish President Who is Proud of Her Heritage

December 21, 1998
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Switzerland will soon have a president who plans to speak out aggressively about her country’s role in World War II.

Recently elected by the Swiss Parliament to assume the country’s presidency on Jan. 1, Ruth Dreifuss said she is “especially proud as a woman and of course also as a member of the Jewish community” to take on the post.

Dreifuss, a member of the left-of-center Social Democrats, will at that time replace Flavio Cotti in the largely ceremonial post, which rotates on an annual basis among the Swiss Cabinet’s seven members.

The first Jew — and the first woman — to become president of the Alpine nation, Dreifuss, 58, will inherit a country that is attempting to cope with an anti-Semitic backlash after Jewish groups mounted a campaign in recent years for Switzerland to acknowledge the financial ties that existed between its leading banks and Nazi Germany.

Accusations from the Jewish organizations that the banks not only worked hand in hand with the German central bank to launder Nazi-looted gold, but also refused to make restitution to Holocaust survivors for unpaid dormant accounts dating back to the war, stung Swiss sensibilities and continue to spark anti- Semitic incidents.

In an interview with JTA, Dreifuss made it clear that she would not back off from the controversy.

“My professional commitment is leftist, feminist and dedicated to human rights,” said Dreifuss, a non-practicing Jew.

But, she added, the issue of the country’s wartime actions would also be on her political agenda.

Dreifuss, who has served as interior minister, a portfolio she will retain after assuming the presidency, noted that she kept a low profile on the issue in the past because she did not want to speak out as the “token Jew” in the government.

“But I am, and was always, proud of my Jewish roots,” she said in the interview, adding that she will reopen dialogue with Jewish groups over Holocaust-era issues.

“Because of my roots, I am more sensitive than others in the government to the whole problem,” which was sparked by the years of unremitting charges about the country’s wartime actions.

Dreifuss was born in 1940 in an eastern Swiss canton, or state. As the Nazis approached the Swiss border, her family moved to Geneva — at the western edge of the country.

During the war, her father, Sidney, played a role in helping Jewish refugees who sought haven in Switzerland.

Dreifuss said in the interview that her father’s actions played a role in shaping her determination to seek justice for Holocaust victims.

Sources in the Swiss government said Dreifuss has always maintained an excellent private relationship with the World Jewish Congress — the group that initiated the charges against the Swiss banks.

One source described her close relationship with the WJC’s secretary-general, Israel Singer.

“They have spent hours of heated but interesting conversations together,” the source said.

Her religion has never been an issue, even at those times when the government was reporting an increase in the anti-Semitic backlash to the WJC’s and other groups’ allegations.

Despite this, Swiss Jewish groups preferred to keep a low profile in their reaction to her being named to the presidency.

“Every Swiss Jew is proud” that she was elected, a senior member of the Swiss Jewish community said — but only on condition of anonymity.

Neither the Federation of Jewish Communities in Switzerland, the community’s umbrella group, nor any other Swiss Jewish organization published a letter of congratulations to Dreifuss, fearing that such a move could provoke counter- statements from anti-Semites in the country.

Dreifuss raised some eyebrows when she was among the few Swiss politicians to welcome the decision in August by two leading Swiss banks to pay a $1.25 billion settlement of Holocaust-era claims.

Despite that settlement, she now insists that the country must continue to deal honestly with its past.

“It would be a catastrophe if this would mean we would consider our work over,” she said.

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