Swiss president’s interview provokes new controversy

BERN, Jan. 5 (JTA) — The year has begun with a new controversy involving Switzerland’s president, Swiss Jewish leaders and the World Jewish Congress.

The conflict was sparked by an interview incoming president Flavio Cotti gave to the Swiss newspaper Tribune de Geneve that was published on the eve of his Jan. 1 inauguration.

Cotti said critics of Switzerland’s wartime role — and handling of bank accounts belonging to Holocaust victims — are limited to certain geographical regions in the United States, especially New York.

Kalman Sultanik, vice president of the World Jewish Congress, criticized Cotti for using the same language as Kurt Waldheim, the former president of Austria who was barred from entering the United States because of his alleged wartime role in a Nazi military unit.

Waldheim said he was a victim of “interest groups in New York and the lobby of the American East Coast,” Sultanik recalled.

Swiss Jewish leaders, while critical of Cotti’s remarks, objected to the comparison of the president with Waldheim.

Thomas Lyssy, vice president of the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities, said such comparisons “must be rejected.”

Sultanik said he was only comparing the use of language, not the two men.

But Lyssy also criticized the new president for failing to mention “the increased anti-Semitism” in Switzerland in his inaugural address.

Cotti’s remarks marked the second time in two years that a New Year’s interview with a Swiss president provoked controversy.

A year ago, outgoing President Jean Delamuraz accused Jewish groups of engaging in “blackmail and extortion” in their efforts to obtain restitution from Swiss banks that were holding the assets of Holocaust victims.

Meanwhile, a Swiss prosecutor is investigating a Swiss neo-Nazi who recently published a brochure that blames Jews for the controversy regarding Swiss involvement in Nazi gold and denigrates commemorating the Holocaust.

The Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center has sent a letter to Thomas Borer, the Swiss government official who is the point man on restitution issues.

The letter from Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Wiesenthal Center, urged the Swiss government to act forcefully against “those who would distort the facts for the purpose of sowing discord and strife within your country.”

(JTA Correspondent Tom Tugend in Los Angeles contributed to this report.)


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