I am a Jew in Switzerland, one of the last European countries to grant full civil rights to its Jews—in 1866. I am a woman. In Switzerland, women were not granted the right to vote until 1971. And I am an activist in the 18,000-mernber Swiss Jewish community, where most keep as low a profile as possible. For the last five years, my job has been to openly fight anti- Semitism: reacting to letters to the editors or op-eds, confronting political statements, testifying at trials against Holocaust deniers, lecturing students and teachers about the history of anti-Semitism.
My commitment to Jewish activism came naturally after years of community involvement as a youth leader and Hebrew school teacher in Geneva. The year that I graduated from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism —1997—coincided with an outbreak of anti-Semitism in Switzerland that followed a national debate about Swiss actions during World War II. Accepting an offer to lead a Geneva-based Jewish organization, the Committee against Anti-Semitism and Defamation (CICAD), was a chance for me to use my skills for a cause in urgent need of spokespersons. I also hoped to play an active role in a national controversy, unusual in a country that likes to bury its dirty secrets in Alpine caves.
I was 27, full of passion and energy, feeling strongly about my Jewish identity. I needed to prove that I, young and female and Jewish, could be the one in the trenches, ready to fight back.
Beginning in 1996, investigations had revealed the extent of Holocaust victims’ dormant accounts in Swiss banks, money which the Swiss government had made no attempt to return to the families of its rightful owners. These reports triggered a wave of graffiti and insults, boycott campaigns and physical aggression against Jews in Switzerland. Politicians and bank officials made shocking statements: then-President Jean-Pascal Delamuraz said that Switzerland was victim of “blackmail” and “extortion,” while one of the leaders of the nationalist Swiss People’s Party, Christoph Blocher, accused the Jews of being “only interested in money.”
Then came the Intifada in the fall of 2000, which gave the Swiss an opportunity for counter-attack on moral grounds. “Jews wanted to give us lessons of justice? Well, they are no better, look what they do in Ramallah!” Today, pro-Palestinian demonstrators in Switzerland openly shout anti-Jewish slogans and hand out leaflets calling for boycott of all Israeli goods. Carmel melons and Jaffa oranges have mysteriously disappeared from supermarket stands. Weekly letters to the editors with anti- Semitic content are published in the local media, and citizens identified by their Jewish garb often suffer from intimidation. Those acts do not compare to France, Belgium, or Germany, where synagogues are burnt down, cemeteries desecrated and Jewish kids attacked. But in Geneva, the Holocaust memorial is sprayed with graffiti every week. Jewish communal buildings receive extra attention from the police, and hate mail and public insults regularly target Jewish leaders.
It started with anonymous hate mail. “We’re sick of you Jews, go back to your kibbutz,” along with the routine “Sorry Hitler didn’t finish his job.” Then came the (fake) anthrax letter, slipped into my home mailbox. In February 2002, after I was interviewed on a major talk show, I received death threats by e-mail: “You deserve a knife under your throat, unless you prefer a bullet in your head.” I sued the author of the threats. After a police investigation, the prosecutor filed away the complaint, because, according to him, the author “never had the intention to kill.” His message was “just an expression of anger” after what I had said. According to the prosecutor, if there is no serious intention to do what one has threatened, there should be nothing to worry about. Or to complain about. What if someone does have the intention to implement his written threats? It would be too late for the prosecutor to make such subtle distinctions.
In Switzerland, minorities are supposed to feel grateful for being tolerated. Rather than fight discrimination, I’m supposed to shut up.
But I don’t want to please. Every single anti-Semitic act makes me more outspoken.
Brigitte Sion, director of CICAD in Geneva from 1997 to October 2002, is now Vice President of Programs at the Jewish Funders Network in New York.