Switzerland

In Switzerland, Supermarket Labels Spark Memories Of “Jew” Passport Stamps

Essay: Swiss supermarket chain Migros plans to introduce a special label for products imported from Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territory. This attempt at "transparency"instead recalls the 'J' that Nazis

Swiss supermarket chain Migros wants to apply a label to products from Israeli settlements. (Mike Knell)
Swiss supermarket chain Migros wants to apply a label to products from Israeli settlements. (Mike Knell)
Henryk M. Broder

Herbert Bollinger, head of Swiss supermarket chain Migros, has explained why his company will begin to use labels designating the origins of products from Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian areas.

The point, he said in an interview with the Swiss-based Jewish weekly magazine Tachles (Straight Talking), was "transparency" – and that transparency is "a global trend" that enables responsible customers "to freely decide what they do, and what they don't, want to buy." Bolliger added that Migros, which will begin the labeling in 2013, "takes no position in the Israel-Palestine conflict, doesn't boycott any products from these areas, and is not calling for boycotts."

But what the Migros boss would like to see as a kind of customer service, unrelated to any position in a political conflict, has a historical precedent: in 1938, the German Reich introduced the so-called Judenstempel (Jew Stamp) – a large red "J" that was stamped into the passports of German Jews.

The measure was taken as a result of an agreement between the German Reich and Switzerland. It was a way for Switzerland to block streams of Jewish refugees, which allowed Germany to avoid introducing a visa requirement for all German citizens.

Granted, labeling people is different from labeling agricultural products. But if you follow Bolliger's logic, you could say that the big red "J" also did not represent a position on the conflict between the German Reich and its Jews – it was just a measure to ensure transparency. Responsible border officials should be in a position to decide who they let in and who they don't.

Darkest hour

The way Jewish refugees were treated by the Swiss is one of the darkest chapters in Switzerland's history. Even those Jews who were allowed in were not welcome.

Poet and playwright Else Lasker-Schüler, for example, who won the prestigious German Kleist literature prize in 1932, resettled in Zurich in April 1933. Swiss immigration authorities, however, apparently took the view that the writer was going to be taking work away from Swiss writers – and they forbade her to publish, forcing her to live on the charity of others. Swiss authorities upped their harassment after Lasker-Schüler was stripped of her German citizenship in 1938, until she finally left Switzerland for Palestine where, penniless and ill, she died in 1945.

But of course that's history -- and for a company like Migros, that generates 25 billion Swiss francs ($26 billion) of revenue a year, pretty much irrelevant. But one could ask some questions, such as why responsible customers who should be able to freely decide what they wish and do not wish to buy shouldn't also have the right to know where the store's pistachios come from.

From Iran? Where adulteresses are stoned and homosexuals are hanged on construction cranes? Shouldn't the store also be letting customers know that Iran, with the money it makes selling pistachios, supports terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah?

That wouldn't be taking sides, or a position, either – just a little customer service in the interests of transparency.

Read the original article in German.

Photo - Mike Knell

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