The SIG was founded in 1904 to represent the interests of Jewish communities. Over the years, it has dealt with a great variety of singular and recurring issues. The SIG has now become firmly established in Swiss society and politics.
On 27 November 1904, 27 representatives of 13 Jewish communities from all over Switzerland gathered in Baden for the inaugural meeting of the SIG. They adopted the Articles of Association, elected an executive committee, and thereby founded the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities. The purpose of the newly created federation was to «protect and promote the joint interests of Jews in Switzerland». The most important issues discussed at the inaugural meeting were the struggle against the prohibition of kosher butchering («shechita»), adopted in the Swiss Constitution in 1893, and the coordination of measures in the cemetery issue.
1930s – combating antisemitic tendencies
The first few years of the SIG’s existence were comparatively calm. This changed in the early 1930s with the rise of various antisemitic groups, which called themselves «fronts». Even more disconcerting for Jews in Switzerland, however, was the gradual infiltration of antisemitic notions and slogans in middle-class conversation and the advances made by some established parties towards the said groups. The SIG was not willing to watch antisemitic fronts working towards their goal, the degradation of Jews to second-class citizens, without taking action. It initially intensified its struggle against antisemitism, for example by setting up its own press agency, the «Jüdischen Nachrichten» (Jewish News) JUNA in late 1936.
Second World War – state of paralysis, tension and outrage
In the war years, however, the SIG increasingly withdrew from public life. It experienced both the Shoah and Switzerland’s asylum policy in a state combining paralysis, tension and outrage. The SIG remained active in the background, doing its utmost to save Jewish refugees and find a place for them in Switzerland. However, relations to non-Jewish individuals trying to help Jews escape from abroad, such as the well-known St. Gallen police captain Paul Grüninger, were difficult and remained distant. By the end of 1942, the Swiss state’s official attitude as well as the feeling of helplessness in view of the ongoing tragedy of Jews in Europe had convinced the SIG that these oppressive problems could only be tackled by a complete restart. Shortly before the end of the war, in 1944, the federation’s members agreed to thoroughly overhaul their organisation. To this day, this has remained the SIG’s largest structural reorganisation.
After the war – outside acceptance and internal challenges
After the Second World War, the SIG’s main tasks – at once old and new – were formulated as «vigilance in view of possible hostilities» and «participation in all cultural and social endeavours». The economic boom in the 1950s significantly boosted the federation’s public acceptance. And political recognition of the SIG advanced in parallel with the blossoming of an inter-religious, Jewish-Christian dialogue.
While relations with the non-Jewish environment were normalised and the SIG gained in self-confidence, several critical developments within the Jewish communities were identified. Among them were the increasing indifference of the younger generation towards Jewish traditions, the destructive impact of inter-religious marriages on a community, and the ageing of Jewish communities. From the mid-1950s onwards, the SIG strove to address these issues. One of its first measures in this context was to intensify its youth work. It also went through a series of debates on revisions of its Articles of Association, which were implemented in small steps in 1981, 1992, 1994, 2008 and 2014. Key discussions revolved around the paragraph defining the purpose of the SIG and the question of whether to accept liberal Jewish communities as members. An application for membership failed in 2003 owing to the SIG’s statutory requirement of a two-thirds majority in favour. The liberal communities subsequently set up an organisation of their own, called «Plattform der liberalen Juden der Schweiz PLJS». Since then, close and well-coordinated forms of cooperation have developed between the PLJS and the SIG.
Dormant assets and unclaimed deposits
In the mid-1990s, the growing tensions between the World Jewish Congress WJC and Swiss banks, which still held considerable dormant assets and unclaimed deposits on their books, posed a significant challenge for the SIG. It saw its duty in assuming a mediating position between the Swiss banks, the Swiss authorities and the WJC. According to the SIG, Switzerland should indeed face up to the darker sides of its past. On the other hand, the country had a right to fair treatment and procedure. Out of such considerations, the SIG welcomed the creation of the Independent Commission of Experts ICE (also known as Bergier commission) in Switzerland to thoroughly examine the country’s role during the Second World War. The set-up of a solidarity foundation and the publication of the commission’s final report in 2001 marked the end of an initial, primarily intellectual clarification of the past. The SIG, too, was striving to come to terms with its own past. It commissioned historian Stefan Mächler to look into its policies during the Second World War. Mr Mächler published his findings in 2005 under the title «Hilfe und Ohnmacht» (help and helplessness). Further research followed in 2014, in which the relations between the SIG and Swiss individuals who had helped Jewish refugees in WW2, in particular the relations to Paul Grüninger, were scrutinised. The SIG finally apologised to Mr Grüniger’s family for its failures towards him.
Professionalisation, new projects and focus on security
Especially during the last decade, the SIG has made considerable progress in professionalising its organisation and activities. Communication and media relations were expanded and placed on a professional footing. Projects for combating antisemitism, with special focus on prevention and education, were given more weight. The Likrat project, which began in 2001 as an encounter project for schools, has been expanded in recent years to include further target groups. It is today perceived both nationally and internationally as a model project in matters of prevention. Recently, the SIG has been forced to focus ever more strongly on the security of Jewish institutions. The threat of rightwing or Islamist attacks first became apparent in the 1970s, leading to the need for Jewish communities and institutions to put an increasing amount of security measures in place. Over the past ten years, the international situation and a long series of attacks on Jewish institutions around the world have escalated the threat. The SIG has since worked towards strengthening intra-Jewish cooperation in security matters and ensuring greater involvement by the Confederation, the cantons and the municipalities. A key political goal in this context is easing the financial burden on Jewish communities, who by now need to invest several million francs each year to finance their security measures.
The SIG today – firmly established in Swiss society and politics
Over the years, the SIG’s contacts with public authorities, churches and other religious institutions as well as various cultural and social organisations have become increasingly well rooted. Nowadays, the federation is recognised as a matter-of-fact and reliable expert and point of contact by partner organisations, authorities, politicians and the media. The SIG has evolved into a widely known and respected player in the political and social arena.
(The primary source for this text is: Balkanyi (Keller), Zsolt: Geschichte des Schweizerischen Israelitischen Gemeindebund, Baden 2009. Its contents have been edited and supplemented.)
|1904 – 1914||Hermann Guggenheim|
|1915 – 1935||Jules Dreyfus|
|1936 – 1943||Saly Mayer|
|1943 – 1946||Saly Braunschweig|
|1946 – 1973||Georges Brunschvig|
|1973 – 1980||Jean Nordmann|
|1980 – 1988||Robert Braunschweig|
|1988 – 1992||Michael Kohn|
|1992 – 2000||Rolf Bloch|
|2000 – 2008||Alfred Donath|
|2008 – 2020||Herbert Winter|
|Since 2020||Ralph Lewin|
Picard, Jacques 1997: Die Schweiz und die Juden 1933-1945. Schweizerischer Antisemitismus, jüdische Abwehr und internationale Migrations- und Flüchtlingspolitik, Zurich: Chronos Verlag.
Roschewski, Heinz 1994: Auf dem Weg zu einem neuen jüdischen Selbstbewusstsein? Geschichte der Juden in der Schweiz 1945-1994, Basel/Frankfurt am Main: Helbing & Lichtenhahn.
Schweizerischer Israelitischer Gemeindebund (SIG) (ed.) 1954: Festschrift zum 50-jährigen Bestehen (1904-1954), Zurich.
Schweizerischer Israelitischer Gemeindebund SIG (Hg.) 2004: Jüdische Lebenswelt Schweiz. 100 Jahre Schweizerischer Israelitischer Gemeindebund (SIG). Zurich: Chronos Verlag.