The relationship between Israel and Switzerland has not always been easy



Basel is the birthplace of the State of Israel, so to speak – but Switzerland’s relationship with Israel has not always been easy

The 125th anniversary of the first Zionist Congress in 1897 is celebrated in Basel. The occasion is considered the birth of the State of Israel. But when this became reality in 1948, official Switzerland initially found it difficult to deal with the new state. In the population, on the other hand, admiration for Israel soon grew – first on the left, today on the right.

In 1967, the 70th anniversary of the Zionist Congress took place in the Basel Stadtcasino.

Image: Keystone

“I founded the Jewish state in Basel,” Theodor Herzl wrote in his diary on September 3, 1897. The first Zionist congress he had organized had ended three days earlier. Herzl did not achieve his goal of creating a “homestead” for the Jewish people in Palestine during his lifetime. He died in 1904. But with his work he created an essential prerequisite for the founding of the State of Israel. This took place on May 14, 1948.

Official Switzerland initially found it difficult to deal with the new state – even if it was founded in Basel. As historians Sacha Zala and Yves Steiner describe in a 2019 essay entitled «Swiss diplomacy on the powder keg of the Middle East 1945-1975». In the Political Department EPD, the forerunner of today’s Foreign Department EDA, there was “no extraordinary sympathy for the Zionist movement”, write the two authors. Israel’s socialist tendencies in the early years were viewed with a certain skepticism by the strongly anti-communist EPD, since there were fears that Israel would move closer to the states of the Eastern bloc.

The militarily threatened small state is admired

With regard to the terminated trade relations, the creation of a Jewish state, which became apparent after a UN decision in November 2947, was rated by Switzerland as “quite advantageous”. However, due to the chaotic conditions in the Middle East – including the war between Israel and six Arab states from the region (1948/49) – and out of consideration for the “not insignificant trade relations” with the Arab states, the Federal Council initially postponed the recognition of Israel. It was only completed in the spring of 1949, when other European states had already taken this step – and with a “tactically restrained information policy,” as Zala and Steiner write.

A closely guarded historical jubilee

1200 guests come to Basel on Sunday and Monday at the invitation of the World Zionist Organization (WZO). On Monday evening there will be a gala dinner in the Stadtcasino, which will also be attended by Israel’s President Isaac Herzog. Exactly 125 years earlier, at the invitation of Theodor Herzl, the first Zionist Congress took place at this location, which in retrospect is regarded as an event of considerable world-historical importance. At that time, the still young Zionist movement adopted the Basel program, which aimed to “create a home for the Jewish people in Palestine”. The canton of Basel-Stadt has budgeted CHF 5.5 million for the security measures. 700 members of the army support the local authorities. There are restrictions on the use of airspace and road closures.

Theodor Herzl is considered the founding father of Zionism.

Theodor Herzl is considered the founding father of Zionism.

Image: Keystone

However, the young state soon enjoyed a lot of sympathy among the Swiss population. “During the 1950s and then intensifying in the 1960s, a real euphoria about Israel built up in the Swiss population, which reached its peak with the Six-Day War in 1967,” says historian Christina Späti from the University of Freiburg and the Fernuni Schweiz. First, within the left, where one admired the socialist ideas of the kibutz movement as they were put into practice.

Cross-party parallels were seen between Israel as a small state under military threat and the situation in Switzerland during the Second World War. According to Späti, the clout of the Israeli army, which also consisted of militiamen, had many admirers in bourgeois circles. With Israel’s positioning in the western camp becoming increasingly clear and many Arab countries turning to Moscow, the skepticism about Israel among Swiss diplomats also diminished.

When anger at Jews is directed at Israel

In the course of the 1970s, the fate of the Palestinian refugees became more and more important to the public, also due to the hijacking of planes and terrorist attacks in Switzerland by militant Palestinian organizations. In addition, the oil crisis of 1973 showed that the Middle East conflict can also have economic consequences in this country: “It got down to business and the realization grew that an agreement had to be reached with the Arab states,” says Professor Späti Die under the eyes of the Israeli army The massacre committed in the Lebanon war in 1982 put an end to the former Israel euphoria in large parts of the left.

The debate about the dormant accounts in the 1990s, on the other hand, caused resentment towards Israel in bourgeois conservative circles – although the state largely held back in the discussion. But in her anger at the demands made by Jewish organizations for a reappraisal of the role played by Swiss banks in the Second World War and for a refund of assets, “part of the public, especially in conservative circles, equated the Jews with the state of Israel,” explains the historian Christina Späti. This could be found in numerous letters to the editor from bourgeois circles.

Things are different today: the Swiss-Israel parliamentary group is dominated by middle-class politicians. There are various reasons for this: “Israel has moved politically to the right in recent years. All over Europe, right-wing parties to right-wing populist parties admire Israel for its military readiness and show solidarity with the state because of the supposed common enemy, the Muslim world.”

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