A Jewish presence in Switzerland can be traced back to the Middle Ages. Until the 19th century, Jews in Switzerland were restricted in their residence and employment. While there were several notable physicians who were given special treatment, the most common Jewish profession for Jews in Switzerland was moneylending. Because Christians were forbidden to lend money, there was an all-too-common cycle of the expulsion of the Jewish community when an area became too indebted, and then, when the economy began to stagnate, an invitation for the Jews to settle in the area once more.
This ambivalent history of the Jews of Switzerland is not particularly surprising for a Western European country. The Jews were constantly persecuted and harassed, especially during times of trouble such as the black plague, when the Jews were accused of poisoning the wells. There were also numerous instances of blood-libel accusations.
As in many Western European countries, the first real taste of equality came with the Napoleonic conquest, but left with it as well. Only in 1841 did the Swiss grant Jews any level of civic equality, and even the new Swiss Constitution of 1848 did not actually open the country to free Jewish settlement. Full civil rights only came to Jews in Switzerland with the revised constitution of 1874.
Although the Jews were considered equal citizens after 1874, there remained issues over certain Jewish religious practices, such as ritual slaughter (shechita). In 1887, the Jews of Baden challenged a general prohibition against shechita, but the ban was upheld by the Swiss courts, which ruled that preventing cruelty* to animals was more important than religious freedom. The prohibition of kosher slaughter was added into the constitution, and it remains forbidden to this day. (Kosher meat must be brought in from other countries.)
The Swiss are most noted for their neutrality, and, because of this policy, the Jews of Switzerland were protected during World War II. However, the Swiss very quickly closed their borders to any refugees with a J-marked passport, leading to the ultimate demise of an untold number of Jews at the hands of the Nazis.
*Please note that the specific methods of shechita have been scientifically proven to minimize any cruelty to the animal by causing an almost instantaneous death.
Today, September 12, is the anniversary of the signing of the constitution of the modern state of Switzerland in 1848.
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