Readers could be forgiven for not remembering the last article they read about Switzerland. Yet, its Jewish population of 18,000 is almost twice the size of that of its Alpine neighbor, Austria, and a bit larger than Sweden’s, two countries that make regular appearances in Times of Israel headlines. Perhaps because antisemitic incidents are less frequent in Switzerland. At least they were until this year.
Within the span of three weeks in February, three antisemitic incidents happened at three synagogues in three different cities. In Biel, swastikas and antisemitic slurs were scrawled on the front door of its synagogue. In Lausanne, a toy stuffed pig and bacon were left at their synagogue. And in Geneva, pork chops were thrown at a synagogue. In January, two online synagogue events in Zurich and Basel were Zoombombed with antisemitic harassment.
After those incidents, Ralph Lewin, president of the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities, said, “No one was harmed, fortunately. But what was hit were gatherings and meeting places of Jewish life in Switzerland, symbols of our identity and our existence here in our homeland.” He went on to note, “There is also an anti-Semitism problem in Switzerland. It’s not just our community’s business. Society also has to show where it stands. The state must ensure that Jewish life in Switzerland can develop in the greatest possible security.”
These non-violent synagogue incidents may seem trivial compared to the numbers of violent antisemitic assaults elsewhere in Europe, but the Swiss government must do more to ensure security for Swiss Jewish community. While no physical attacks on Jews occurred in the past two years and just one in 2018, security measures are still needed, as they are for Jewish communities around the world. One lesson of the deadly terror attacks in Copenhagen and Halle, Germany is that even small Jewish communities are targets.
Security is expensive. Costs for security guards, reinforced doors, security cameras, window treatments, and other measures consume an inordinate amount of the budget of Swiss Jewish communities. Several European governments cover all of these costs for their Jewish communities. Switzerland is not among them. After protracted negotiations, the federal government agreed to subsidize some security infrastructure projects, but high and ongoing costs for security guards are still paid by the communities.
The governments that provide such financial support understand that the extra security measures are needed and the reasons for them are not the fault of the Jewish community. Jewish citizens merit the same measure of security as non-Jewish citizens and governments are responsible for ensuring security for all. The German government pledged increased security funding for Jewish communities after the terror attack on the Halle synagogue. Switzerland should not wait for a major attack to do so.
Nor should the Swiss government delay in joining the majority of European governments, which have adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism. The Swiss Criminal Code forbids “public incitement of hatred or discrimination,” “systematic denigration or defamation,” and other “violations of human dignity.” Adopting the widely accepted IHRA definition of antisemitism and integrating it into the training of police, prosecutors, and judges will improve the implementation of these laws and also inform public debate about non-criminal hate speech, including antisemitic QAnon-related conspiracy theories that have become popular among Swiss extremists.
According to CICAD, the organization fighting antisemitism in the French-speaking areas of Switzerland, the Swiss parliament asked the government in September 2019 for a report on implementing the IHRA definition. That report still has not been presented, and the most recent update from CICAD is that the report will only be given to the parliament for debate in the autumn.
Switzerland is also one of the last countries in Europe without an official Holocaust memorial. Private memorial sites dot the country, but 16 years after joining the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance no official memorial has been built. The Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities, together with several other non-Jewish organizations, will soon send a proposal to the federal government for an official Holocaust memorial. Politicians from all Swiss parties support this initiative, and there is an expectation that the government will act upon it quickly.
The rarity of severe antisemitic incidents isn’t due to any special composition of Switzerland, compared to elsewhere in Western Europe. ADL’s Global 100 survey in 2014 found 26% of Swiss harbored antisemitic attitudes, just above the 24% average for Western Europe. The Muslim population is about 5%, roughly the same as in Austria or The Netherlands. The obligation to act against antisemitism is as incumbent on Switzerland as on any other country.
With three decisions – on comprehensive security financing, the IHRA definition, and an official Holocaust memorial – the Swiss government can reassure the Swiss Jewish community of its support and perhaps generate positive headlines for Switzerland.