Lisa Christen is a native New Yorker who recently moved to Zurich to join her Swiss husband. She authors the popular blog The Real Housewife of Zurich which sarcastically documents her transition from Corporate America to modern European housewife.
I’m at the very beginning of learning what it means to be Jewish in Switzerland. I grew up in New York, I studied politics in Washington DC, and then made a life in corporate America in sunny San Diego. Then, nine months ago, I married a Swiss man and moved to Zurich. What I have learned so far is this: Switzerland is a great role model for the world for success in economics, happiness, and international relations. What they may not be a great role model for is successful integration of Jewish life in Swiss culture.
Switzerland is a small country with a small population, and a country this size seemingly shouldn’t have much clout in the world. Shouldn’t, but the fact is that it could. Why? Switzerland is consistently rated among the best places in the world to live, with Zurich and Geneva scoring the 2nd and 3rd place for “Best Places to Live” in Forbes Magazine’s 2011 list. Switzerland took second place as the World’s Happiest Place, narrowly trailing Denmark, according to the World Happiness Database. And during the economic crisis that has recently devastated the American and EU economies, Switzerland’s financial crisis was that their economy was doing too well compared to the rest of the world! And yes, the Swiss government is expected to have a surplus of $1.6 billion, as opposed to the $1.6 trillion debt the US was facing, in 2011. Switzerland has managed to remain neutral for centuries, meaning that their international relations don’t include wars, threats of being attacked on their soil, or risking citizens’ lives.
So now you see why Switzerland serves as a great role model: because they have managed to succeed in the areas that are (arguably) most important to every country’s citizens. But there is one aspect about this success that should have Jewish folks around the world a little apprehensive about adapting Swiss best practices. The success of Swiss culture is credited to their strong focus on collectivism. In other words, all people living in Switzerland must be willing to give up individualistic identities in order to conform with the society as it is already established and work together towards the general greater good. Which makes living life as a Jew in Switzerland that much more difficult.
Say you are observant of the laws of kashrut and require kosher meat. Switzerland banned kosher animal slaughters in 1893 because kosher slaughter practices were considered inhumane. This seems to defy our Jewish understanding of kashrut, which is to find the most humane way to slaughter the animal. So in Switzerland, the only way Jews can get kosher meat is to find a specialized butcher who is willing to import the meat from neighboring countries France and Germany. Although it is widely accepted that there were clear anti-Semitic undertones when the law was passed, the official reason for the ban was animal cruelty and is still supported for that reason to this day. In recent years, the Swiss have been considering banning even the import of the meat because of those “barbaric” ways of slaughtering.
Now take as a different example that you and your family want to observe the Sabbath. Children’s athletic and extracurricular teams often meet on Saturdays for practice. As a Jew observant of the Sabbath, you bring your child with you to Shul. From my perspective growing up in America, this would just be considered a family choice that the child doesn’t come to play with the other school children and that’s that. In Switzerland, however, the parents of the other children would view your act of defiance against the established culture negatively, as though you are trying to separate your family from the other families and are not willing to participate in the community. The average Swiss would actually believe you are hurting your child, and that his wellbeing and development are stunted because you separate him from social situations with his friends. They believe you are keeping your child apart from his peers and that his peers will always remember him as being “different.”
You have to understand, there are many reasons why the Swiss culture has evolved to be the conformist society that it is, among which includes Switzerland’s survival history. Modern-day Switzerland was established in 1291 when three cities united to defend the peace after the death of an Emperor. They endured using a “survival mode” mindset, finding ways to stick together, despite differences, in order to persist as a free and independent land (and we’re not talking minor differences; for example, Switzerland now has 4 official languages: German, French, Italian, and Romansch because the areas are so different from one another). But their survival mentality also created a distrust of strangers or unknown cultures due to the threat of being attacked or ripped apart.
And this leads to the inadvertent bias against Jews (and Muslims, and others of “different” cultural norms that do not want to fully integrate). I want to clearly state that the Swiss do not seem to be overtly anti-Semitic. It is their cultural norm, which is understandable based on their history, that has set them up to have a successful culture that is based on integration into the existing society. But Jews across the world, be wary of following suit in your home country.