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The history of the Jewish community in Switzerland is long and multifaceted. It constantly fluctuates between marginalisation and integration. The SIG is committed to preserving Switzerland’s Jewish cultural heritage and enhancing its visibility.
The history of Jewish life in Switzerland presumably dates back to the Roman era and has, over the centuries, displayed a great variety of facets. High points such as the gaining of equal rights and low points such as the persecution and expulsion experienced in the Middle Ages are all reflected in today’s Jewish cultural heritage. Making Jewish history visible and preserving the associated cultural heritage are among the SIG’s key objectives.
First Jewish communities in Switzerland
Already in Roman times, in the 4th century, Jewish craftsmen and merchants are presumed to have lived in the region that is now Switzerland. However, there is no archaeological or textual evidence of a Jewish community apart for a menorah ring discovered in Augusta Raurica. From the beginning of the 6th century, Jews were known to have lived in Burgundy, which at the time included large parts of today’s cantons of Berne and Jura and belonged to the Frankish Empire. Subsequently, the legal and political status of the Jewish population steadily deteriorated under the growing influence of the Church in political matters. Jewish communities were placed under special laws and thus divided from the rest of the population.
Jews in the Middle Ages and the time of the Black Death
At the beginning of the 13th century, Jews were resident in numerous Swiss cities, primarily in Basel, Berne, Geneva and Zurich. The unique wall paintings preserved in the house at Brunngasse 8 in Zurich, which at that time was owned by a Jewish family, bear witness of this fact. However, the Jewish population remained subject to discriminatory special laws, had to pay “Jew tax”, and were not allowed to work as craftsmen, merchants or farmers. The difficult circumstances for Jews became even worse after rumours took hold that they were responsible for the Black Death, the great pestilence that peaked in the years 1348/49. In many parts of the country, Jews were tortured, burnt to death or banished. Small communities of Jews subsequently returned, but charges of ritual killings resulted in renewed persecution. As of 1491, Jews were expelled from the entire Swiss territory, which signified a provisional end to Jewish life in Switzerland.
Early Modern Age and the Jewish villages of Endingen and Lengnau
From their expulsion in 1491 until the end of the 16th century, there were not enough Jews in Switzerland to form anything like a community. Between the early 17th and the late 18th century, Jews were permitted permanent residence in Endingen and Lengnau only. Each of these two Jewish villages in today’s canton of Aargau had a representative synagogue. A lively cultural exchange with the non-Jewish population evolved, and certain Yiddish expressions found their way into the German spoken by the locals. But even there, they did not enjoy the same rights as their non-Jewish counterparts. Jews were not allowed to own property and were barred from skilled manual trades. The “Doppeltür” society is dedicated to the unique history of these Jewish villages in the Surbtal valley and aims to make this cultural heritage more visible.
The road to equal rights – 1798 to 1866
In 1798 the Jews from the Surbtal formally requested the Helvetic government to grant them equal rights. The request was rejected. Neither did the Federal Constitution of 1848 bring the Jews the desired equality. Only with the revision of the Constitution in 1866 were the Jews placed on an equal legal footing with the rest of the Swiss population. The total revision of the Constitution of 1874 finally granted the Jewish community the freedom of religious practice, too.
Growth and urbanisation – 1866 to 1933
The basic structures of Switzerland’s Jewish community developed in the decades after the granting of equal rights. Following their emancipation, numerous Jews moved from the countryside to a town. By the beginning of the 20th century, the majority of Jews in Switzerland were living in Basel, Geneva or Zurich. This period also saw a significant rise in the Jewish population. Communities were established, synagogues built and associations set up. Jewish communal life became increasingly vibrant. From 1904 onwards, the various Jewish communities were united under the SIG as their umbrella organisation. The aim of the newly founded federation was to represent and to protect the general interests of Jews in Switzerland.
Rise of Nazism and the Second World War – 1933 to 1945
The rise of Nazism and its associated ideology in Germany put twofold pressure on the Swiss Jewish community – from the antisemitism that was rife both at home and abroad, and from the closed-door asylum policy towards Jewish refugees trying to enter the country. Jews in Switzerland had to perform a balancing act between assimilation on the one hand and civil disobedience on behalf of persecuted Jews on the other. This challenge marked the debate within the Swiss Jewish community. A majority of Jewish refugees who entered Switzerland despite the prevailing anti-Jewish asylum policy were cared for by the Association of Swiss Jewish Refugee Aid and Welfare Organisations (VSJF, up to 1943 VSIA).
Coming to terms with the events of the 1930s and 1940s loomed large for many years after the end of the war. At the same time, the long-lasting economic boom of the post-war years enabled Switzerland’s Jewish communities to consolidate and expand their infrastructure. In addition to the traditional offers such as religious services and instruction, the communities now organised day schools, libraries and a wide range of social and cultural events. General developments towards more pluralism and multiculturalism led to greater integration and assimilation of Jews within Swiss society. Currently there are around 18,000 people of Jewish faith living in Switzerland, the majority of them in Basel, Berne, Geneva, Lausanne and Zurich.
Weingarten, Ralph/ Kupfer, Claude 1999: Zwischen Ausgrenzung und Integration. Geschichte und Gegenwart der Jüdinnen und Juden in der Schweiz, Zurich: Sabe Verlag.
Schweizerischer Israelitischer Gemeindebund SIG (ed.) 2004: Jüdische Lebenswelt Schweiz. 100 Jahre Schweizerischer Israelitischer Gemeindebund (SIG). Zurich: Chronos Verlag.
Brunschwig, Annette 2005: Vom 13. Jahrhundert bis zur Französischen Revolution, in: Brunschwig, Annette et al. (ed.): Geschichte der Juden im Kanton Zürich. Von den Anfängen bis in die heutige Zeit, Zurich: Orell Füssli.
Guggenheim-Grünberg, Florence/ Guggenheim, Willy (ed.) 1982: Juden in der Schweiz. Glaube, Geschichte, Gegenwart. Küsnacht: Kürz.
Picard, Jacques 1997: Die Schweiz und die Juden. 1933-1945, Zurich: Chronos Verlag.