The Swiss refuse to pay for the security of Jewish citizens

Switzerland is acting against its own laws when it comes to Jewish security says Swiss historian Simon Erlanger, interviewed by the writer.

Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld

OpEds Simon Erlanger
Simon Erlanger
Manfred Gerstenfeld

“Swiss authorities refuse to provide for the security of Swiss Jewish institutions or to carry the cost thereof. This occurs despite the fact that it is the elementary duty of the state to defend its citizens and inhabitants and to guarantee their basic safety. In Switzerland this obligation is explicitly stated in its 1848/1866 constitution which was last rewritten in April 1999.

“Switzerland has also signed and ratified the Convention of the Council of Europe on the Protection of National Minorities. That means that it recognizes the Jewish community as a national minority by law. The Swiss authorities are therefore legally obliged to create safe conditions which enable Swiss Jews to thrive, to exercise their religion and preserve their traditions.” 

The idea that the state could not fund the security of its Jewish citizens reflected the old anti-Semitic stereotype and underlying basic assumption of the ‘rich Jew.’
Simon Erlanger is a historian and journalist. He teaches Jewish history at the University of Lucerne. He also works in television as well as for several newspapers.

“The Swiss authorities have seemingly committed themselves to take all necessary measures against anti-Semitic threats or attacks and to protect the Jewish minority. Yet the Swiss federal government has always tried to shift responsibility to the cantons and vice versa. The cantons as formally quasi-independent states try to keep as much of their sovereignty as possible and usually oppose federal intervention. 

“This shifting of responsibilities between the central state and the cantons is a central issue of Swiss politics affecting many subjects from education, to taxes, the penal law and even foreign policy. Usually a decision is eventually made on the subjects concerned. This is not so with the issue of Jewish security where the Federal state and the cantons both seem to refuse responsibility.

“There is a heightened and constant threat aimed at Jewish communities, organizations, institutions and individuals in Switzerland. Assessments of the Swiss intelligence agencies, police forces, and the Swiss Federation over the past two years have regularly confirmed this. No specifics have so far been made public. 

“The specific responsibilities concerning protection of Jewish communities are still not clear. In Basel, for instance, there is a close working relationship between the authorities and the Jewish community. The canton and the police ought to be responsible for the daily protection of the Great Basel Synagogue. However, policemen or guards are not placed at Jewish institutions by the state, nor does the canton provide the community with funding. 

“A private security force, manned and paid for by the Basel Jewish community, provides daily security. The other larger Jewish communities, Zurich, Geneva and Lausanne, also rely on their own organizations for security. The smaller communities often use services provided by the larger ones or improvise. The annual security cost for Swiss Jewry nationwide is estimated at several million francs. Exact numbers are usually not made public. 

“It has been made known that the Basel Jewish community of 960 members has to raise about 800,000 francs in 2017 for security measures deemed necessary by the state. The ageing and shrinking community already has a yearly deficit of about half a million francs. After 2017, security cost is expected to be between 200,000 and 300,000 franc annually. If no state funding will be provided, this financial burden will put into question the financial viability of the community and therefore its very survival. 

“In November 2016, a Commission of Inquiry at the Ministry of Interior (EDI) confirmed the threats against Jews. It mentioned jihadists as the most probable perpetrators of anti-Semitic attacks. The threat by rightwing and leftwing extremists was not mentioned explicitly. The commission concluded that Jews should provide substantial means to create and fund a foundation to pay for their own security. 

“This conclusion created a scandal. The idea that the state could not fund the security of its Jewish citizens reflected the old anti-Semitic stereotype and underlying basic assumption of the ‘rich Jew.’ While the issue was reported in most big newspapers and radio stations, official Swiss television has remained silent. In reaction to the report many official promises were made but on the ground little has changed. 

The risk increases as Swiss borders with France and Germany are open and most of the time barely controlled due to a serious police manpower shortage.
“Immediately after the public outcry following the commission report, the Parliament of the Canton of Basel (Grosser Rat) overwhelmingly voted to pay for the security of the Jewish community. However the vote was nonbinding and has no consequences for the 2018 budgetary process. To affect that budget a different parliamentary process has to be started. To the best of my knowledge this has not happened so far. Developments in Zurich are similar. Sympathy was expressed in other parliaments including the Upper Chamber of the Federal Parliament (Ständerat), but not in the far larger Lower Chamber (Nationalrat). 

“The risk increases as Swiss borders with France and Germany are open and most of the time barely controlled due to a serious police manpower shortage. Tens of thousands of French and German workers cross into Switzerland in the Basel and Geneva regions daily. The contrast between French and Swiss official attitudes is significant. In the Jewish community of the French town of St. Louis – actually a Basel neighborhood – the synagogue and the yeshiva are guarded by heavily armed French paratroopers.” 

Erlanger sums the situation up: “Considering the fact that 80% of Swiss Jews are Swiss citizens (as opposed to only some 66% of all other inhabitants of the country), the refusal to provide security becomes even more striking. It might even be unlawful and contradict the country’s constitution. Therefore, if nothing concrete happens soon, the Swiss Jewish community should act and sue the state, before going bankrupt or before having to relinquish security for financial reasons. 

“The quick response of guarding Christmas markets all around the country following the Berlin attack of last December has shown that Swiss authorities can act rapidly when they choose to do so. Open air concerts, markets and other events were guarded and protected during the summer of 2017.

"Obviously the Swiss state can make an effort to provide safety and security to its citizens. One must ask why the Jews are exempted. Maybe one hundred fifty years after the official emancipation Swiss Jewry is still regarded as second class by many government officials and politicians.”