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The Untold Story of Switzerland’s Approach to Diversity

By: Michael Bernstein

February 15, 2023

Before I arrived in Geneva, I, like many others, envisioned a bustling metropolitan teeming with luxury and global prominence. A city gilded in decadent chocolates and lakefront properties serving as a breathtaking playground for the rich and famous. With its prestigious boarding schools and high cost of living, this author is not reluctant enough to render this infamous reputation wholly unfounded. However, my personal experience has spurred a conviction that there is more nuance to the fabric of Swiss society than is often entertained. This mountainous country can actually be a model for the world in certain arenas.

It’s not that the story of Geneva’s opulence is untrue, but rather incomplete. For example, the narrative omits Switzerland's unique approach to engaging difference that can serve as a model to the world. I fret some are too blinded by the shine of Geneva’s Rolex watches and metallic credit cards to weave such complexities into the full portrait of modern Switzerland. Here are a few lessons from my short time in Geneva that challenged the way I engage difference, and perhaps they will for you as well.

Fourth months of strolling this city’s cobblestone streets offered little evidence of any stark division on the basis of color or creed. However, my interactions with local Muslims shed light on a pitfall of Geneva’s beacon of inclusion. I began to stumble upon laws and referendums targeting the Islamic faith under the guise of countering extremism. Upon further examination of their provisions, the labeling of religious traditions (such as prayer and modesty) as potential signs of radicalization troubled me. I spoke with practicing Muslims living in Geneva and visited the Islamic Center of Geneva to learn more. Members of the community shared increasing feelings of unease and nervousness. I reflected on how discriminatory policies can often hide behind alleged counterterrorism efforts. Their heartfelt personal experiences moved me, and they challenged the idea that progress for some can still mean work for others.

Rooted in the revolutionary advancement of the Protestant Reformation, I immediately noted Geneva’s religious tolerance and embracement of diversity. My host family’s Jewish lifestyle thrives in the broader secular undertone of society. They keep kosher and observe shabbat—practices I have respected as a non-Jewish person during my time in their home. I felt an immense regard for the divide between the private and public sphere. For example, traditions and customs practiced in the home never bled onto the street or influenced local governments. I was struck by the collective understanding that there is a stark delineation between your personal beliefs and those you believe your government should adopt. It confronted my long-held conviction that personal opinions unconditionally drive public policy.

Even more, when engaging in political discussions with local professors and students, I noticed a conspicuous lack of religiosity in the discourse. I found this stood in contrast to the current status of the U.S. political climate. Often, religion is invoked to perpetuate beliefs on abortion, the Second Amendment, and more. In Switzerland, my working hypothesis is that the broader religious plurality insulates the Swiss government from similar encroachments. I have witnessed several protests on a range of issues such as workers’ rights and Ukrainian solidarity. Rarely could I spot a religious reference, let alone identify a specific faith driving policy or opinion. It made me think about how often religion is referenced in our elections back home. Stepping outside the American bubble, I began to gain a clearer vision of faith’s permeation of our politics, and question if it ought to be that way.

On a personal note, I can personally attest to Geneva’s warm embrace for people around the world. Diverse local restaurants and boutiques line the streets with proud owners, many of whom are immigrants. Friendships and neighbors are rarely defined by race or ethnicity. Unlike in the United States, race does not permeate nearly every sector of society. The same way skin color is not often propagated as the original source of hostility in Switzerland, it is not promoted as part of the solution either. The race lever is less-pulled by nearly every political camp. For better or worse, discussions about white privilege and systemic racism are seemingly American concepts. It’s not to say they do not exist in other places, but the main forum in recent years for such conversations has undeniably been the United States.

In fact, it has been my experience that many here object to the way we speak about difference. For example, during one of the first weeks of class, the program invited a counselor to come speak with our diverse cohort about adjusting to life abroad. Naturally, many students expressed angst over finding a local community and support system. Students of underrepresented identities inquired about groups where shared color or creed would offer a sense of belonging. The charismatic and young counselor, of an underrepresented identity herself, paused in deliberation. I expected her next commentary to list a garden variety of available resources. Instead, she strenuously objected to our definition of community and denounced what she perceived as a divisive and superficial conception. My classmates publicly reproached her comments, citing historical and modern inequities to justify the existence of such spaces. The tension mostly left when she did, but her remarks lingered in the back of my mind for months to come.

In short, I reflect on the level of social harmony and racial integration that, while not perfect, certainly appears light years ahead of many places in the United States. My time abroad cultivated a new perspective that perhaps we’re doing something wrong, or even missing something altogether. American university campuses, social media platforms, and political discussions have become hyper-polarized. Valid and much-needed discussions around race invoke deeply personal experiences that offer invaluable perspectives to public policy. Yet, stepping outside the ring for a brief moment, I can’t help but wonder if we’re becoming more divided. Switzerland’s unity around shared values has certainly been a refreshing and uplifting experience for this particular Hoya that challenged me to rethink how we engage differences.