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The Sins of Swiss Neutrality

During the week of Yom HaShoah, while Holocaust services were being observed all over the world, the United Nations reconvened its Durban Conference to discuss human rights issues and violations that are taking place throughout the world. Traditionally, the onus of blame has always been directed at Israel, as if all the other human rights issues of the world seem to pale, in comparison e.g., the genocide in Darfur, Jihadist terrorism, or the recent Russian invasion of Georgia and the theft of their land does not seem to matter.

Curiously, on Sunday April 19th, on the day that Adolf Hitler was born, the Swiss President Hans Rudolf-Merz decided to meet with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran.

As all of you probably know, the Iranian leader is an avowed Holocaust denier; he was slated to give the keynote address before the United Nations forum known as “Durban II”, which was being held in Geneva.

Well, as it turned out, members of the Western countries protested; entire delegations walked out of the hall right after Ahmadinejad continued to raise the vitriolic hatred of his rhetoric, blasting Israel and the United States of America for all the problems of the world. The only comical moment of the entire speech came when three clowns positioned themselves at opposite ends of the hall. When Ahmadinejad began speaking, they whipped out the clown wigs from their pockets and yelled “racist” at the Iranian president. Yes, Durban II was a circus.

What were the planners of the conference really thinking?

The Western world and even some members of the Arab world, made a point of walking out on Ahmadinejad and the president of Switzerland made a point of welcoming him into his country.

President Hans Rudolf-Merz justified his meeting with the Holocaust denier and rabid anti-Semite Ahmadinejad by repeating the by now overused and incorrect cliché that Switzerland is a neutral country, that as a neutral country Switzerland embraces the idea of maintaining open channels and talking to everyone in order to properly promote peaceful negotiations between enemy nations.

Sound familiar? It should. The Swiss used this same platitude during World War II to avoid saving Jews; this old familiar cliché was utilized whenever the Swiss wanted to cover up collaboration with the Nazis. Throughout the WWII Swiss banks underwrote the Nazi war machine—no questions asked.

One wonders: What does it mean to maintain an attitude of neutrality? Justice Louis Brandeis  once wrote,  “Neutrality is at times a graver sin than belligerence.”  Bishop Desmond Tutu says it even better, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

Neutrality in the face of evil, well, I guess we can call that “cowardice.” True neutrality should not transform the third party into a spineless jellyfish or leave a nation in a state of moral paralysis; neutrality should not mean that one cannot recognize the difference between good and evil.

Authentic neutrality means to hold one standard of justice to all sides that are embroiled in a conflict. One set of ethics must be firmly established for all. Neutrality means taking no sides, but it also means adopting a set of values that embraces moral and ethical principles.

Perhaps not so surprisingly, Switzerland chose not to condemn one of the most dangerous countries in the world; instead, the Swiss gave a platform and a handshake; nothing the mad man from Iran said seemed to faze the Swiss president at all.

The United States and her allies expects Israel to make a symbolic gesture toward peace; yet, the symbolic behavior of the Swiss government reveals that it has yet to internalize the painful and horrendous lessons of the Holocaust.

Some things never change. As the Swiss deposited stolen monies seized from Europe’s Jewish communities and witnessed Jews everywhere being killed, they still maintained their “neutrality.” Not only that, when Jewish refugees fled to Switzerland, they even sent them back to Germany. No questions asked.

We will be observing our own community Holocaust Memorial Day program this coming Sunday at Temple Emmanuel in Davenport. As we remember the victims of the Holocaust, let us keep in mind the words of President Kennedy who paraphrased the poet Dante’s famous remark,  “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis maintain their neutrality.”