The Swiss take the kind of pride in their public transportation system that the French do in their food and the Italians in their leather, and it is not without reason. Many foreigners here can tell you in detail about the "first time" they set foot on a Swiss tram. As a New Yorker accustomed to a dally battle with the odour, delays and craziness of the Manhattan subway, my "first time" was probably especially memorable.
The experience was dean and germ-free. It helped maintain peace of mind. The morning trip to work involves no fear for anyone's physical safety, no frantic face-offs with the person next to you to determine who will be the last person stuffed into the car, and (usually) no red-eyed lunatic sitting across you and staring unblinkingly at your neck. People going about their dally lives in Switzerland know that trams come and go on time just as they know any other fact-of-life. These lucky, commuters expect prompt ness just as they expect not to be shocked or shaken up emotionally on their way to wherever they are going.
So it was with real surprise that I was jolted out of my complacent state last week on my tram ride to German class. With dictionary in hand, I had slowly and painfully translated the words of the advertisement in front of me. Was it possible that the advertisement read, in big block letters, "Where do Jews keep their money?" I then made out the smaller lettering below, which read: "in a bank, like everyone else".
The poster, as we all know now, is part of a public education campaign by the Stiftung gegen Rassismus und Antisemitismus (GRA), an organisation dedicated to lighting prejudice in Switzerland. The campaign--which also includes posters that read, "What do black men do at lunch-time?" and, "What do Thai women do at night?"--has been the subject of a heated controversy in the Swiss press.
Presumably, GRA's intention is to shock people into confronting their own racism. It is like a little pop-quiz to test what you think, or what you didn't realise you thought. If, when you passively raid the question on your way to work, an answer that is a racist stereotype pops first into your head, then you've failed the quiz. The whole experiment is meant, then, to force oneself out of the comfort of thinking that one is immune to the racist ideas that mix and mingle around in the air we breathe posing as truths like crocodiles posing as floating logs in a busy swamp.
A History of Racism
Like in any other country, there is racism and prejudice in Switzerland today. And like other countries, Switzerland, too, has tried to deal with it in different ways and to varying degrees. In the 1960s and '70s, when there was a heightened awareness of civil rights issues and a call for action across many countries, ,some groups in Switzerland started to pay attention to the treatment of the Swiss Jenish (also known as "gypsies" or "travellers"). This group has often suffered prejudice and discrimination and had a high rate of unemployment and illiteracy. In the '70s it was revealed that a government sponsored htmmnitarian organisation was taking Swiss Jenish children away from their families and placing them in childcare, claiming the "People of the Road" were unfit parents.
Around this time there was a wave of Spanish...