Comparing the promised land to the perfect land

Coming back to Israel after my recent vacation in Switzerland made me really question what in the world I’m doing in this difficult country.

We returned to Israel via Basel last Thursday morning. I sat in my seat and looked out the window at green pastures and then at snowy Alps. Three-and-a-half hours later, I saw Israel come into view – from my window it looked very flat, densely-populated and very, very yellow.

Seeing the Merkaz (the center of the country) was disconcerting. How could so many people live in such a small space?! Imagining the heat of midday down below (a high of 32C!), I felt claustrophobic before we even landed.

Then the wheels touched the Israeli tarmac and suddenly everyone clapped. This shocked me out of my depressed reverie and threw me back into the complexity of Israel as I found myself suddenly choked up with emotion. I clearly remembered no one clapping nine days earlier when we landed on European soil. So why do people clap when landing in our itty-bitty land that flows with prickles and Sabras?

Switzerland – the experience

From a tourist’s perspective, Switzerland feels about as close to a perfect country as one might get. The weather there was perfect and it even rained (I love rain).

Switzerland has a relatively stable economy (more on that below) and, although it’s difficult to measure the wealth of a country, it is obviously substantially wealthier than Israel.

Chocolate wealth (photo by me)

Although Switzerland is land-locked, it has plenty of water that runs through the country as lakes…

In Interlaken (photo by me)

…and freely in fountains throughout the cities which you can drink from, it’s so clean.

Zurich central train station. This water has no after-taste. And it's free. Can you imagine?! (photo by me)

It isn’t too densely populated, and most exciting of all, it has open borders with the ability to buy a train ticket in a Swiss station for many other countries in Europe.

Interlaken to Berlin anyone? (photo by... guesses anyone?)

If only that were the case in the Middle East, allowing us to vacation in beautiful Iran.

Damn. There's something wrong with Google Maps!

The Swiss are an organized, polite and helpful people. Getting around is a cinch with the perfect railway system and with the help of people who consistently go above and beyond.

And then finally, there is the natural beauty. You have the green…


…the snow-capped mountains…

On a cable-car up to First Mountain

and, my favourite of all, tons of wild flowers.

Dreamy! (photo by me)

There were times that I was so touched by the views that they made me emotional.

Of course there are also the double rainbows:

A double rainbow! A double rainbow! A double rainbow!

And the healthy beer and hard boiled egg diet:

God made beer kosher to numb the pain of not eating local food while travelling.

It’s a wonderful country. It seems to be pleasant, stable and welcoming.

I know. It’s probably not very productive, what I’m doing. As someone once told me, if you are trying to make a life for yourself in Israel, don’t compare westward.


No matter. I feel the need to continue.

Switzerland – Jewish history

As a tourist looking at Switzerland from the outside, and as an Israeli citizen who is probably currently looking at my own country on a pretty shallow level as well, I’d say that the goals of the two countries are as follows:

  • Switzerland’s goal is to be perfect and wealthy.
  • Israel’s goal is to be a safe haven for Jews from countries such as Switzerland.

Yes, it turns out that Switzerland carries an appalling history of Anti-Semitism.

While in Basel on our first day there, I wondered how Herzl could think up a Jewish country when surrounded by such serenity and beauty. But this became clear, the more I read about the history of Jews in the area.

Reading about centuries of mistreatment that took place in “perfect” Switzerland is disconcerting, especially since we didn’t feel it at all as tourists in the country in 2012. I wore my Star of David necklace in clear view during our trip and we felt like people reacted favourably when we told them we’re from Israel.

And yet, in “Is There a Future for Jews in Switzerland?” by Dr. Simon Erlanger (most of the historical information here is from this very informative article), there are details about hundreds of years of harsh and/or bloody treatment towards Jews, including in recent history, during WWII, and on and off since the founding of the state of Israel, all this often disguised with other intentions, like keeping Switzerland clean of foreigners.

For example, Dr. Erlanger writes:

There was occasional violence against the Jews of Endingen and Lengnau, and up to 1769 the authorities were asked by the local populace at least six times to expel them.


The authorities, however, did not comply. Protestant cantons did not want to drive out the Jews from the two villages because keeping them there annoyed the Catholic cantons of the interior, which urgently wanted to expel the Jews. Jews thus had become pawns in the confessional strife that threatened to tear apart the Swiss Confederacy for most of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Read the article for more details but in short, starting around 1348 (when they forced Jews to admit they were responsible for the Plague), many cities and territories murdered their Jews and expelled the survivors. Jews were denied entry and residence for many centuries and it was only because of external pressures (mainly from the United States) that emancipation was reached in 1868-1874. Over the years, any Jews who succeeded in making their home in Swiss areas, did so in exchange for high taxes and with the understanding that residence could always be retracted.

It was a few years after the emancipation, in1895, when Herzl began writing “Der Yudenstaat” (The Jewish State).

Herzl wrote:

We are naturally drawn into those places where we are not persecuted, and our appearance there gives rise to persecution. This is the case, and will inevitably be so, everywhere, even in highly civilised countries…

In Switzerland, Jewish immigration was made illegal following WWI which led to the infamous anti-Jewish refugee policy during WWII. Swiss Jews were safe from the hands of the Nazis but Jewish refugees were not allowed entry to Switzerland (at least 24,000 were turned away) and most of the 22,500 who got in were kept in special camps with the aim of preventing them from creating permanent homes for themselves in Switzerland. Almost all of them were forced to leave after 1945.

Today, shechita (Jewish ritual slaughter of meat) is still illegal (read about the law’s Anti-Semitic origins in 1886 in Dr. Erlanger’s article). When in 2001 the prohibition was raised for discussion, people wrote angry letters, using traditional Anti-Semitic language to express their disdain at the thought that shechita may become legal in their country.

The year 2009 saw a sharp rise in Anti-Semitic incidents.

In the latest news, Migros, the largest grocery store in Switzerland, is joining other countries that have decided not to write “Made in Israel” on products made in Yehuda or Shomron since they consider settlements there to be illegal.

The feeling from Dr. Erlanger’s article is that Anti-Semitic sentiment is always there, waiting for an excuse to rear its ugly head.

Hmmm… Perfect?

Switzerland versus Israel – Statistics

While viewing the perfect life of the “average” Swiss, I became interested in statistics comparing Switzerland with Israel, trying to figure out if it really is a better place to live. Here they are:

Land mass
Switzerland: 41.3 thousand square km.; 4.2% water
Israel: 22 thousand square km.; 2% water

Total population
The Swiss and Israeli populations are almost identical.

Switzerland: 7.95 million; density – 188/square km.
Israel: 7.87 million; density – 371/square km.

Jewish population as a percentage of the total population
Switzerland’s Jewish population is approximately 18,000.

Switzerland: 0.25% Jewish
Israel: 75.3% Jewish

Smoking per capita
I noticed a lot of smoking in Switzerland. It seemed to be more than Israel. Can you believe that it’s actually true?! The stats prove me right:

Switzerland: 1,698 cigarettes per person, per year
Israel: 1,173 cigarettes per person, per year

Suicide rates
These rates are for 2007.
Switzerland had 18.0 suicides per 100,000.
Israel had 5.8 per 100,000 in the same year.

Divorce rates
I kept speaking to locals who were divorced and so I wondered if that is a trend there. These percentages are for 2007.

Switzerland: 25.5%
Israel: 14.8%

On the other hand, couples generally look very happy there. You can see them talking on the trains, walking holding hands. Also, PDA (public displays of affection) is very accepted there.

Waste per household
Everything there seemed so neat and new that it made me wonder if there is more waste there than here. The logic being that they throw out perfectly good items in order to keep up an attractive exterior.

But no.

Switzerland’s waste is around 1.75 kg/household/day.
Israel’s was slightly lower at around 1.6 kg/household/day.

There is so much data on this, it’s difficult to summarize it. In general Israel seems to have more crime with more police per capita and more prisoners than Switzerland. You can see a table with some stats here.

Life expectancy
So similar!
Switzerland: 82.1 years
Israel: 82 years

Financial security
Some things are extremely complicated to measure. For financial security I decided to use the GDP (gross domestic product) per capita. This is the total US dollar value of goods and services produced in a country in one year. It is adjusted to living costs per country and divided by the average population of that year.

Switzerland: $43,370
Israel: $30,975

This is a complex number but I’d say it means that financially it’s easier to live in Switzerland if you have work. Please consult with your local economist for further explanations (that’s what I did – thanks Dad!).

Finally, remember a little while ago the results of a study were publicized showing which countries are happiest? In this study, Switzerland came in fourth…

Switzerland ranked fourth happiest country.

And Israel came in sixth.

Israel is the sixth happiest country.

Not too shabby considering all the external differences between the two.

My theory? Depressed people in Switzerland just kill themselves (see suicide rates above) and depressed people in Israel just leave.

Go west?

One would think that there are much easier places to live than Israel and yet, when I compare wonderful Switzerland to difficult Israel, they don’t look that different. It’s as if it all evens out because in some cases, Switzerland comes out substantially worse.

And anyway, even though flying between Switzerland and Israel is experiencing two opposite worlds colliding, we have similar life expectancy and waste per household. That’s really a lot in common! (Shidduch?)

But for me, the bottom line is how Jews have been treated in Switzerland over the centuries. Switzerland may be the land flowing with chocolate and money but the fact that Anti-Semitism seems to be such an ingrained part of their culture disgusts me and as long as it doesn’t disgust or embarrass them, that they could treat anyone the way they’ve treated the Jews, Switzerland will actually remain a far from perfect place and it makes me wonder what else is going on beneath the surface.

Yes, people can be difficult here – taking the bus this morning reminded me of that – and I found myself feeling lighter and more easy-going while I was there. Sometimes it’s hard to come to terms with the fact that our little country is one that has to fight for its existence when I could just as easily choose to live in a place like Switzerland, or at least in Canada.

But Herzl discussed Zionism in Switzerland of all places, holding the first World Zionist Congress in Basel, because he believed that Anti-Semitism could not be defeated and instead needed to be avoided, ideally through having a country just for Jews.

And so, until countries like Switzerland feel true shame for its treatment of Jews, until it isn’t only Jews who tsk tsk Anti-Semitism, having our own little prickly country will be better than being not fully welcome guests in other people’s perfect countries.

P.S. Only in Switzerland? 🙂

Regarding my article on May 25, ‘Only in Israel’ – a folklore movement to support your decision to live here, I believe I generalized too much and I apologize for that. This apology is at the end of the article because if it were at the beginning, it would be the excerpt of this article all over the site! So again, sorry. 🙂 

And in spirit of Only in… stories, here are some of the things you’ll “only” find in Switzerland:

  • A perfect railway system
  • Exact times on clocks
  • Perfect chocolate
  • Perfect, adorable cows
  • People are very nice without being in your face
  • The Alps
  • Sun bathing topless in the middle of the city in the middle of the day. All this on a workday.
  • A woman swimming in Zurich’s lake, along with the ducks.
  • Drinking from the fountains in the street
  • People running after you to help you, once you ask for help (including teenagers!).

Ah… only in Switzerland.

About the Author
Deena writes about life, relationships and her beloved Jerusalem. She organizes "Jerusalem Encounters" and shares hand-picked cultural events in her online calendar, Things to do in Jerusalem.