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 Judaism in Switzerland 

 

A few celebrities...

Many Jews settled in Switzerland, such as businessman Nessim Gaon, owner of the famous Noga Hilton in Geneva, Edmond Safra, who for a long time ran his banking empire from Switzerland, or the Maus and Nordmann families, owners of the Manor group, one of the three major store chains in Switzerland, or raider Asher Edelman, who had his museum of modern art built on the shores of Lake Geneva.

But businessmen are not the only famous Jews to have lived in Switzerland. Albert Cohen, Corfu-born writer, who was raised in Marseilles and came to Geneva to study without ever leaving the city where he wrote his award-winning novel Belle du Seigneur, or Elias Canetti, 1981 Nobel Literature prize winner, who spent 5 years in Zurich. Other famous Jews in Switzerland are philosopher Jeanne Hersch, literary critic Jean Starobinski, or Paul Guggenheim, "the most eminent international law expert", violinist Yehudi Menuhin, or composer Ernest Bloch. But the most propagated of all is without a doubt Albert Einstein, who spent his entire youth in Switzerland, obtained his Doctorate in Physics from the Federal Polytechnic Academy in Zurich and was employed as examiner at the Swiss patent office.

 

The beginnings

Before the founding of the Swiss Confederation (1291), there were already Jews in the present-day Swiss territory. In fact, the presence of Jews is attested as early as 1213 in Basle. Coming from Germany and France, they traveled along the rivers to Bern, Zurich, Geneva, St Gallen, Lucerne, Vevey, Neuchâtel, Fribourg and many other cities.

Banished during the fifteenth century, they obtained protection and the right to reside in two villages in the Aargau canton, Lengnau and Oberendingen.

 

Language - "Western Yiddish"

The Jews of the Surb Valley spoke a particular Western Yiddish dialect, traces of which can be still found today in the region, a mix of High German dialects, blended with Hebrew and Armenian words, and inklings of Romance languages. Contrary to Eastern Yiddish, which is spoken by Polish and American Jews, Western Yiddish has almost disappeared. Today there are but a scarce few, mostly elderly, who know the dialect of the Surb Valley Jews.

 

Jewish "rights"

Legal freedom was granted to all religious communities by the 1874 Constitution,, somthing from which the Jews immediately benefited and weren´t slow to use. The Jews of the Surb Valley immigrated to the big Swiss cities. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many Jews from Alsace, Germany and Eastern Europe added to this core group. In 1920, the Jewish population had reached its peak at 21,000 people - according to official figures - a figure that has remained almost constant ever since.

 

A few demographics

According to the 1990 census, Switzerland counts approximately 20,000 Jews, or 0.3% of the total population, again according to official statistics.

In terms of the cantons, only Zurich, Basle-City, Geneva and Vaud have a Jewish community exceeding 1,000 people. One third of Swiss Jews reside in the canton of Zurich (6,252 people).

  • Ashkenazim
    Following the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, and the crushing of Prague Spring in 1968, immigrants poured into Switzerland, there were many Jews among the refugees to whom Switzerland opened its doors.

  • Sephardim
    The Jews of Egypt and North Africa, after the establishment of the Zionist entity - "Israel" - settled mainly in French-speaking Switzerland.

  • Orthodox Jews
    A community of Orthodox Jews settled in Zurich, creating a typical Jewish quarter much like in Antwerp or New York. Unlike in other European cities, where certain Jewish quarters do not have a single kosher restaurant, the Swiss capital is home to an extremely "dynamic" Orthodox community thriving in its age-old traditions.
 

An organized community

The Swiss Jews are well organized. The Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities (FSCI), the umbrella organization for Jews, is comprised of 23 autonomous communities.

The Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities is a body that is representative of the diversity of Judaism within Switzerland, fron so-called right-wing to left-wing, from "Orthodox" to "progressive" and "liberal".

 

Business and finance

According to official sources like switzerland.isyours.com "the Jews play a fairly important role in the textile and clock-making industries, as well as manufacturers or wholesalers".

The Jews do own several private banks such as the Republic National Bank of New York and the Discount Bank & Trust Company. Typically Jews figure in the professions as doctors, dentists, pharmacists, lawyers, engineers and artists.

The most well-known Jewish figure in Switzerland is undoubtedly the politician Ruth Dreifuss - a former Zionist youth movement member - who entered the federal government in 1993 and became Switzerland’s first woman president.

 

 


Ruth Dreifuss (1940 - )

 


Ruth Dreifuss - president
of the Swiss Confederation.

In 1999, Switzerland was one of the first countries in the world to be governed by a Jewish president - Ruth Dreifuss - president of the Swiss Confederation.

As noted in the article Switzerland in the Grip of the 'Traditional Enemy' Dreifuss is "a former Zionist youth movement member":

In 1991 the Swiss confederation celebrated its 700th anniversary. On this occasion there appeared in the year book (Jahrbuch) of Migros, Switzerland's largest chain store, an interview with labor union secretary Ruth Dreifuss. At the time this Jewish woman, and a former Zionist youth movement member, was not very well known. In this interview she expressed herself with disarming openness about our country's future. She said that, as far as she was concerned, it is not important whether Switzerland survives as a sovereign country, but that, in any case, she certainly wishes to see Switzerland as a colorful country, that is of people of mixed race with many mixed marriages. A short time later Dreifuss was appointed, under unusual circumstances, to a high-level post on the governing Federal Council (Bundesrat).

Then came a bustle of activity, most notably the introduction of a so-called anti-racism law, which makes it a crime to "deny or whitewash the genocide," and a campaign to encourage guilt feelings among the Swiss regarding their role during the Second World War.
[...]
But let us return to Federal Council member Dreifuss. She and her Social Democratic Party, with the help of the largely cooperative or coordinated media, did not tire of maligning Switzerland. At the same time, and parallel with this, Jewish circles in the United States began a massive campaign of accusations against Switzerland, with fantastic demands for money. At this same time, a Jewish woman, May Kunin, was coincidentally named as the US ambassador to Switzerland. International Jewish community leaders Edgar Bronfman, Israel Singer and Avraham Burg joined in, increasing the pressure on Switzerland to such an extent that Federal Council president Jean-Pascal Delamuraz spoke of a campaign of "blackmail," and the Swiss ambassador in the United States, Carlo Jagmetti, even referred, in a confidential paper, to this as a "war." (Jagmetti promptly resigned, and Delamuraz was condemned to silence.)
[...]
As a result, Frau Dreifuss can claim with no fear of contradiction that Switzerland's wartime Federal Council "knew that Jews were being annihilated" (Nouveau Quotidien, May 9, 1995). Hardly anyone dares seriously to contradict this, much less to make the revisionist argument in a forceful way.

 


 


Marc Rich.

Marc Rich (1938 - )

The king of commodities has lived in Zug since 1983. Marc Rich was born in 1934 to a Jewish family who emigrated to the USA during the war. At the age of 20, he was hired by Phillips Brothers, a top global commodities trader, and then founded his own company in 1973, Marc Rich & Co.

He invented spot oil trading, and reaped his first billion in profit during the second oil crisis of 1979. Wanted by the American justice system for having traded with Iran and for tax evasion, Marc Rich sought exile in Switzerland in 1983. He set up his head office in Zug, where - typically - taxes are the lowest in Switzerland.

Marc Rich created the Doron Foundation, which supports such institutions as the Zurich Opera, the Internal Festival of Lucerne and the ZugHockey Club.

The business man's fortune stands in fact at over 2 billion Swiss francs. He lives in La Villa Rose, a mansion on the shores of Lake Lucerne, in Meggen, not far from Lucerne. Marc Rich also owns a home in Marbella, Spain, and a chalet on the slopes of St. Moritz, only a few minutes by helicopter from his villa.

Sentenced to 325 years in prison by the American justice, Marc Rich was pardoned by Bill Clinton at the end of 2000. In February, 2001, his firm Marc Rich & Co. merged with Crown Resources, which also has its head office in Zug.

 


Nessim Gaon

The infamous Jewish businessman manages an empire of commodities trading (grain with Russian, salt with Africa, etc …) from Geneva, where he owns one of the largest hotels, the Noga Hilton.

 


Robert Louis Dreyfus (1934 - )

Shrewd manager of Adidas and a very rich man, Robert Louis-Dreyfus lives in Davos but commutes by helicopter to his factories in Germany.

 


 

Edmond J. Safra.

Edmond Safra (1932 - 1999)

The banking tycoon lived in Geneva for over 40 years. Edmond J. Safra was born in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1932 to a wealthy family of Syrian Jewish bankers who had once financed the camel caravans. At the age of 16, he was hired by his father's bank and took charge of the precious metals department.

In 1949, the family moved to Italy, fleeing the anti-Jewish sentiments that were brought about by the emergence of the Zionist State of Israel. Edmond Safra worked for a trading company in Milan. The family moved once again in 1952, this time to Brazil, where Edmond Safra founded the Banco Safra S.A. in 1955.

In 1956, Edmond Safra settled in Geneva to set up a private bank, the Trade Development Bank. He found the business climate to be favorable and extended his financial empire, making it a point of honor to satisfy his fabulously wealthy clients from Monte Carlo to Miami. He also founded the Republic National Bank of New York in 1966.

Edmond Safra became famous in 1983 through the sale of the Trade Development Bank to American Express, a transaction that turned into a legal battle between the 2 parties. The financier came out on top and, in 1988, he founded the Safra Republic Holdings S.A., a firm specializing in wealth management.

By the early 1990s, Edmond Safra's fortune was an estimated 2.5 billion dollars. As a typiscal Jewsih tycoon he made many donations to Jewish hospitals, schools and universities throughout the world. As he approached his 60s, the financier shared his time between his home in Geneva, New York and his villas on the French Riviera.

Weakened by Parkinson's Disease, Edmond Safra decided to sell his financial empire, an estimated value of 2.75 billion dollars. He died in 1999, in Monaco, at the age of 67 and is buried in Geneva.

 

 


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