Real, Imaginary, and Symbolic Roles of Jews in Swiss Society

By Erlanger, Simon | Jewish Political Studies Review, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Real, Imaginary, and Symbolic Roles of Jews in Swiss Society


Erlanger, Simon, Jewish Political Studies Review


Numbering just under eighteen thousand, Jews constitute a tiny fragment of Switzerland's population of 7.7 million. Nevertheless, Swiss public discourse is preoccupied with things Jewish. This goes back at least as far as the first centralized Swiss state. The Helvetic Republic, founded in 1798, fell apart largely over the issue of Jewish emancipation. This issue remained at the very center of the Swiss political discourse up to 1868 when, under U.S. and French pressure, Switzerland granted equal rights to the Jews. Having benefited from foreign intervention, Jews in Switzerland have come to symbolize unwanted change and foreign influence. Moreover, the special, bottom-up character of the Swiss body politic, with its semiautonomous cantons and communities, has enabled medieval stereotypes to survive into modernity. The medieval image of the Jew as the religious Other has thus transformed into the image of the Jew as the essential Other against which, for most of the twentieth century, Swiss identity was defined.

Jews are all over the news in Switzerland. Rarely does a day go by without many, mostly negative feature articles or news items on Jews and Israel. Jews are news in every respect. When Swiss Jewish personalities or organizations issue statements on current concerns, these are generally heard and widely reported even if the person or organization has no real influence, public impact, or power. Jews, being the representatives of what now is dubbed the country's Jewish-Christian heritage, are perceived to hold moral power. For many, the seemingly weak local Jews represent something larger and more powerful, the mysterious World Jewry.

Essentially, the Swiss public discourse is preoccupied beyond all proportion with Jewish matters. Numbering barely eighteen thousand,1 Swiss Jews constitute only a tiny fragment of the country's population of 7.7 million.2 Nevertheless, newspapers of all varieties, national and local television stations, and radio stations regularly report on Jewish issues. Beyond the largely negative reporting on Israel there is also a more positive focus on Jewish culture. In a way that can only be described as obsessive, barely a week passes without articles, reports, and features on a wide range of Jewish historical and cultural issues.3 Klezmer music can often be heard, and Fiddler on the Roof has become a standard production of many rural and provincial stages.

Recently Melnitz, a novel by the Swiss Jewish writer Charles Lewinsky, became Switzerland's bestselling novel in decades.4 It tells the story of a Swiss Jewish family from emancipation in the 1870s to World War II. This saga follows the many family members on their respective paths from traditional Jewish life to emancipation, assimilation, Orthodoxy, or Zionism culminating in Swiss Jewry's survival during the 1940s. The book's success is the more surprising as the story and language of more than half of the novel are deeply rooted in the vanished rural life of the Landjudentum (land Jewry) that existed until the Shoah in southern Germany, Alsace, and Switzerland. Although, seemingly, the book's content, modes of expression, and Western Yiddish dialect cannot be fully understood by someone not acquainted with that world, its popularity is a fact.

Apparently, then, Jews fascinate. But sometimes it seems that the Swiss media and reading public are more comfortable with the threatened or vanished culture of long-dead Jews than with the thriving, living Jewish communities in Switzerland and the rest of Europe, North America, and Israel, with all their complexities and recurrent internal controversies on a wide range of political, social, and religious issues. Over the past twenty years the Swiss media and public have been especially ambivalent toward the Israeli Jewish reality, concerning which a discourse of delegitimization has taken hold.

Controversies

Several controversies centering on Swiss-Jewish relations have preoccupied the country since the 1990s. …

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