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Jewish Journal

The Swiss Spin

by Tom Tugend

November 13, 1997 | 7:00 pm

Swiss Ambassador Alfred Defago

Has unremitting pressure on the Swiss government and its banks byAmerican Jewish organizations and supportive politicians becomecounterproductive, or will only constant prodding move the Swiss todo the right thing?

The question is being spurred by a newly cohesive attempt atdamage control by leading Swiss spokesmen, aimed at Americanaudiences in general, and the Jewish community in particular.

During a recent week-long visit to California, Alfred Defago, theSwiss ambassador to the United States, spent his first day in LosAngeles, visiting the Simon Wiesenthal Center in the morning andholding back-to-back meetings with two Jewish leadership groups inthe afternoon and evening.

During his trip, Defago addressed an average of five to eightgroups a day, about a third of them Jewish. But even in meetings withgeneral audiences, "the Jewish aspect always comes up," he saidduring a private interview in his hotel room.

Two weeks earlier, Dr. Pierre Braunschweig, a Swiss historian anddirector of a political-policy think tank, stopped in Los Angelesduring a national tour to defend his country's role during World WarII. He said that he was the first Swiss representative to visitAmerican universities and to examine charges that neutral Switzerlandwas a willing collaborator of Nazi Germany during the war.

Defago struck one major theme in his public addresses and privatemeetings. After reciting his country's current and future steps toidentify Swiss bank accounts opened by Holocaust victims and toestablish a fund to aid survivors, Defago added, in one typicalinstance:

"While it may sometimes appear that Switzerland moves slowly, thisis because the Swiss are a deliberate and prudent people.... We askAmericans to please respect democratic rule. Give us time forreflection and making up our minds. Nobody likes to be pushedaround."

And, on another occasion, he said, "We react better toconstructive dialogue than unreasonable political and economicthreats."

To bolster his plea for patience and calm discussion, Defagorepeatedly quoted U.S. Under Secretary of State Stuart E. Eizenstat,the leading American voice for lowering the level of anti-Swissrhetoric and sanctions.

It is not lost on the Swiss that Eizenstat, both as a prominentJewish figure and as director of a U.S. government study that'shighly critical of the Swiss government, enjoys a high credibilityrating in the Jewish community.

In opposing sanctions against Swiss banks by the state governmentsof California, New York and Massachusetts, Eizenstat said, recently:"Such actions have led to a negative reaction in Switzerland,creating the impression among the Swiss population that they areunder unfair attack.

"This impression undermines the Swiss government's ability tocomplete those initiatives that are subject to a direct vote of thepeople in referenda."

Eizenstat's reference is to two separate referendums that Swissvoters must approve in order to allow the government to sell off aconsiderable part of its gold reserves and establish a $4.7 billionSolidarity Fund, part of which would benefit Holocaust survivors.

Braunschweig and other knowledgeable Swiss observers predict thatif the present mood of the Swiss electorate continues into next year,the referendums will fail, elevating the present acrimony to an evenhigher pitch.

Backing Eizenstat's viewpoint is Abraham H. Foxman, nationaldirector of the Anti-Defamation League. In a letter to stateTreasurer Matt Fong, Foxman wrote that, given recent "very hopefulsigns" of cooperation by the Swiss government and banks," punitivepolicies by California and other states and municipalities would becounterproductive to this positive effort."

Defago concedes the present aggrieved state of most of hiscountrymen at what they perceive as bias by the American media,unfair accusations by Jewish organizations and demeaning threats byAmerican politicians. But many Swiss, he adds, especially among theyounger generation, are open to critical self-examination and willcorrect past errors if allowed to work through the process at theirown pace.

At least one Jewish leader, with intimate knowledge ofSwitzerland, sees some merit in Defago's arguments. Arthur P. Stern,a Swiss-educated Holocaust survivor who is married to a Swiss-Jewishwoman and who is former president of Magnavox, said that while "I amnot an enthusiastic supporter of Switzerland, I feel that some thingshave gone too far."

Stern, who chaired a meeting that the Jewish Federation Council'sJewish Community Relations Committee (JCRC) had with the Swissambassador, gave, as an example, the recent television documentary,"Nazi Gold." The documentary charged that the Swiss allowed thetransshipment of Italian Jews across their territory to Germanconcentration camps.

Stern termed this charge preposterous, saying: "It is no minorthing to accuse a people of murder. It is very difficult,particularly for American audiences, to reconstruct a situation 50years later and to understand the attitudes and traditions of anothercountry."

Stern's relatively charitable viewpoint was not shared by StanleyKandel, who participated in the same meeting.

"I didn't find the ambassador forthcoming; he would only admitwhat he was forced to admit," said Kandel. "He never acknowledgedthat Switzerland prospered during World War II and acted way beyondwhat it needed for survival."

The president of the American Jewish Committee's Los Angeleschapter, Barry Sanders, who took part in a separate colloquium withDefago, suggested a balanced approach to Switzerland.

"We should continue to put appropriate pressure on the Swiss to dothe right thing, but acrimonious and not strictly accurateaccusations are not effective," he said.

Yet such observations on the Swiss pleas for relief from Americanpressures and accusations are mild, compared with the reactions ofthose individuals and organizations that have led the fight to forceSwiss banks and the Swiss government to admit to and rectify theirwartime and postwar actions.

Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, R-N.Y., who chaired the Senate hearings thatexposed Swiss banking practices and brought them to world attention,minced no words.

"What do [the Swiss] expect me to do: surrender my right of freespeech?" he said in a phone call from his Washington office. "Dotheir banks think that by releasing their lists [of wartime Jewishaccounts] a little at a time, we'll be satisfied? If we didn't bringthis up, they wouldn't have done a thing -- give me a break."

Injecting occasional expletives for emphasis, the senator promisedthat "I will do whatever is necessary to achieve justice...it is notI who creates antagonism, it's their officials. It wasn't me, butthey, who talked of Jewish blackmail and a war against the Jews."

Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress,was only slightly less emphatic. The WJC, as the lead organization inconfronting Swiss banks and government policy, "does not applypressure, but pursues the truth," said Steinberg. "If the Swissconsider that truth is pressure, that's their problem.

"Actions taken by the Swiss have undercut confidence in them. Theyhave been unwilling to admit that they have made mistakes. We willcontinue to pursue the truth."

Another player in the Swiss arena is the Simon Wiesenthal Center.The Los Angeles-based organization found itself in a diplomaticcontretemps when the Swiss ambassador showed up for a scheduled 8a.m. visit to learn that neither of the center's two top executives,Rabbis Marvin Hier and Abraham Cooper, were there to greet him. ASwiss official told a Jewish leader that the rabbis' absence was "aslap in the face."

Hier, who said that he was at a long-planned family wedding in NewYork and that Cooper was in Israel, ascribed the incident to amisunderstanding. Defago, in an earlier communication, had merelyasked for a tour of the Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance, asdo many visiting dignitaries, Hier said.

"Had we known that the ambassador wanted to see us and discussissues with us, we would have notified him that we would not be intown," Hier said. He added that he would phone Defago to apologizefor the inadvertent slight.

Otherwise, the Wiesenthal Center's investigations will continue tofocus on what Hier called "the neglected question" of how manydormant wartime accounts in Swiss banks were opened by top Naziofficials and businessmen before the collapse of the Third Reich.

The sums deposited by perpetrators of the Holocaust may be muchlarger than the amounts deposited by Holocaust victims, but the Swisshad not exposed the Nazi assets, because it would be "tooembarrassing for the Swiss," Hier said.

The visits to Los Angeles by the Swiss ambassador and a Swisshistorian were marked by a number of ironies.

The two men's meetings with Jewish organizations were conductedwith considerable civility on all sides. The really aggressivecomments and questions took place in such elevated and supposedlyneutral forums as the Los Angeles World Affairs Council and UCLA, andcame from unrestrained freelance protesters.

At the university, for instance, a questioner stunned the Swiss byaccusing them of a form of original sin, which included profiteeringduring World War I and the hiring out of Swiss mercenaries to warringEuropean armies in centuries past.

The visiting Swiss officials and journalists acknowledged thatthey were psychologically unprepared for worldwide criticism becauseof their country's squeaky-clean and oversentimentalized image as theland of fine chocolates, watches and ski resorts, inhabited bystolid, law-abiding burghers.

To dispel this unwarranted picture of "Heidiland," as one Swissvisitor put it derisively, he and others went to great lengths toassure Americans that Switzerland was rife with drug problems,racism, alienation of the young, high unemployment and the illscommon to other nations.


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