Jews used to live in the territories of today’s cantons of Berne and Jura as early as around 500 C.E. But in the Middle Ages their situation deteriorated: they were discriminated, segregated and pursued. At the end of the 18th century, the two communities of Lengnau and Endingen in the Canton of Aargau were the only ones in Switzerland that allowed Jews to settle down permanently. Their rights, however, were strongly limited – they were neither allowed to carry on a craft, nor to possess land.
The Federal Constitution of 1848 granted comprehensive fundamental rights to Christian Swiss people only. Just by a popular vote in 1866, that provided them the freedom of settlement and full exercise of civil rights, the Jews were put on an equal footing with the other Swiss citizens. A restriction taken profoundly hard by the Jews, nevertheless, followed just around 30 years later with the issuance of the ban of ritual slaughter (shechita).
At the outset of the 20th century, an abundant Jewish life began to unfold. Swiss Jews contributed essentially to the economic development of the country, be it in the constitution of Eastern Switzerland’s knitting industry, the watchmaking industry in the Romandy, or the establishment of the first large department stores in the cities. Also in science, politics and culture Jewish personalities have set landmarks up to today.
During the Second World War, Switzerland was a safe haven for the local Jewry. Some 23,000 Jews prosecuted by the Nazis succeeded in finding refuge in Switzerland. But an estimated number of 20,000 Jewish men, women and children were repelled at the border, which for most of them meant certain death.
Today, around 18,000 Jews live in Switzerland. They define themselves as Swiss and Jews, as Jewish Swiss citizens. This is what this travelling exhibition on 150 years of emancipation tells about by word and picture: 15 portrays by photographer Alexander Jaquemet are complemented by the sitters’ statements as to their Jewish self-understanding in Switzerland.