Every Jewish Heritage Tour in Basel has to take into consideration that Basel’s strategic position on the Rhine converted the city into a hub for trade, transport and the pharmaceutical industry. However, the city truly owes its prestige to the world-famous ART Basel festival, a must for art lovers, and to Basel’s Jewish Heritage, which played a unique role in the world’s history: it was here that the first World Zionist Congress took place in 1897.
Learn about the history of Basel’s Jewry and the first steps that were taken in this city towards the creation of a Jewish State on our Jewish Basel Tour!
Jews first settled in Basel during the 12th century, but they soon became victims of anti-Semitic violence, as they were accused of having poisoned a well during the Black Death epidemic. During the following centuries, the authorities of Basel alternately issued individual residence permits and expulsion edicts for Jewish people, until the end of the 16th century, when Basel became a centre for Hebrew printing. Though the printing houses were owned by Christians, residence permits were granted to Jewish proof-readers. As a result, Johannes Froben published the Book of Psalms in 1516. His son Jerome published a copy of the Bible in Hebrew in 1536. Between 1578 and 1580, Ambrosius Froben was permitted to print a censored edition of the Talmud, which had been banned under Pope Julius III in 1553. The works of Johannes Buxtorf, who taught Hebrew at Basel University (1591-1664) were also printed in Basel.
Under Napoleon, several Jews, mainly French citizens from Alsace, settled in Basel, but were eventually expelled. It was not until the Jews of Switzerland were granted full civil rights in 1866 that the Jews from Alsace could eventually return to settle in Basel. The community grew, and the Great Synagogue, one of the highlights of our Jewish Basel Tour, was consecrated in 1868. The synagogue in the Eulerstrasse is the work of the architect Hermann Gauss, who took the one in Stuttgart, with its neo-Byzantine, Moorish, and Romanesque styles, as his model.
A very important step in Jewish history was taken in Basel: the First Zionist Congress was held here in 1897; in total, the World Zionist Congress would meet in Basel ten times. A street in the city is dedicated to the memory of Theodor Herzl, who first formulated the idea of a “Judenstaat”, and a plaque in the Stadtcasino, where the congress took place, serves as a reminder of the Zionist movement’s origins in Basel.
Then, during World War II, Swiss Jews were protected by Switzerland's neutrality. Thus, Basel served as a temporary refuge for a number of Jews fleeing the Nazis, though most of those Jews left after the war. However, during the war, many Jews were unable to escape to Switzerland, as a result of government policies designed to keep them out. Evidence suggests that Swiss banks collaborated with the Nazis, and withheld, laundered and looted many victims' and survivors' assets.
To learn more, visit with us the Jewish Museum of Switzerland, which was founded in 1966 as the first Jewish museum in German-speaking countries after the war. After admiring the museum’s Judaica collection, you can dive into the most comprehensive collection of public art in Switzerland in the Kunstmuseum Basel. The museum houses the world’s largest collection of Holbeins and a substantial collection of Renaissance and impressionist works among its thousands of pieces.
If you can’t get enough of art, Basel is your city! We suggest to move on to Fondation Beyeler, which exhibits works by Picasso and Rothko, sculptures by Miró and Max Ernst, and tribal figures from Oceania, in a building designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano.
A stroll in the Marktplatz will pull you back to the Middle Ages, and if you want to go even further back in time, you can walk through the Augusta Raurica, the last remnants of a Roman colony founded in 43 BC, about 17km east of Basel.
Go with us through all the city’s layers by joining our Jewish Basel Tour!