Opinion | World

FIRST PERSON I talked to the ‘anti-Semitic’ Swiss hotel owner. It’s more complicated than you think.

The Paradise Apartments hotel in Arosa, near Zurich, Switzerland. (Courtesy of Paradise Apartments hotel)

(JTA) — A chuckle tickled my throat as Ruth Thomann, a Swiss hotelier who posted signs urging her “Jewish guests” to shower before entering the pool, assured me that she has “nothing against Jews.”

To be clear, I don’t find racism particularly amusing, especially not these days.

But there was something comical about how her earnest voice – she was speaking in broken English with a thick Swiss-German accent – contrasted with the glaringly discriminatory character of the laminated signs that she posted in her Paradise Apartments in Arosa hotel near Zurich last week, which provoked outrage in Israel and beyond.

Besides, in over a decade of reporting about Europe, I have heard more variations of this weak defense than I can remember — including by people who immediately contradicted themselves. Last year alone I heard it from the professional anti-Semite Dieudonne M’bala M’bala and from a Belgian cartoonist who proudly accepted an award at Iran’s Holocaust denial and mockery festival.

The shower signs, which Israel’s Foreign Ministry escalated into a diplomatic incident with Switzerland, seemed to me an open-and-shut case.

But as I listened earlier this week to Thomann’s passionate explanations and apology — “the signs should have been addressed to all the guests instead of Jewish ones,” she said, near tears – I realized that despite the damning evidence and anger against her, she was probably a tolerant person who, for lack of tact, was being pilloried internationally with devastating consequences for her business.

And so what began as a clear-cut expression of Europe’s growing anti-Semitism problem turned, in my mind, into a reminder of how important it is precisely during these times to judge people innocent, even of hate crimes, until proven otherwise.

In addition to the sign about the pool, Thomann also posted one instructing “our Jewish guests” on when they could access a hotel refrigerator. Both signs circulated on social media, where Israeli journalists found them.

“You have to understand,” she pleaded with me, “the sign about the refrigerator goes to Jews because I kindly allowed only the Jews to keep their food in the staff’s refrigerator because I know they bring their own food,” she said. Her Orthodox Jewish guests needed to store their food there because of kosher issues, she explained.

“My God, if I had something against Jews, I wouldn’t take them as guests!” she said.

Technically, excluding Jews would be illegal in Switzerland. But an anti-Semitic hotelier could get around it, since Orthodox Jewish tourists typically book hotels in the Alpine country through specialized travel agencies. And so in principle, all a Swiss hotel needs to do to “lose” its Orthodox guests would be to inform their travel agent of some imaginary deal breaker — say a nocturnal pulled pork bake-off contest, or zero accommodations for storing kosher food.

So what about the shower signs, I asked.

“Well,” Thomann paused, searching for words. “I’m sorry to say but I know the hotel, and the only people who go in without taking a shower are the Jewish guests.”

And how exactly does she know that, I inquired, bracing for comments on body odor.

“They go in wearing their T-shirts!” Thomann said, adding that the behavior drew complaints from other guests, who found it unsanitary.

I have not verified the claim about T-shirts. But in my extensive travels across Europe, and especially to places that receive many Jewish visitors, I have seen culture clashes between secular Europeans and vacationing members of insular haredi communities from Israel and beyond.

In Uman, a Ukrainian city where each year 30,000 Jews convene for a pilgrimage, many apartment owners who used to rent rooms to the visitors have stopped because of damages and fires. Last year, the Uman City Plaza hotel also adopted this policy, citing the same reason.

Before filing my story on Thomann apologizing for the signs — it was shared nearly 3,000 times on Twitter — I said goodbye to the hotelier, adding that I found it regrettable that some of my colleagues didn’t bother to get her side of the story before reporting about the signs.

But that was only the beginning of the Swiss hotel saga.

Responding to calls by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the reservations service Booking.com dropped Thomann’s hotel – a painful financial blow to any business in the industry.

The Wiesenthal Center’s intervention is understandable on many levels.

Especially in Europe, signs singling out Jews inevitably evoke memories of the slogans that proliferated across the continent during the Nazi occupation of most of its territory, from the laconically demeaning (“No dogs and Jews allowed”) to the viciously “humorous.”

It didn’t help that in the same week as the Swiss hotel affair, news emerged that Switzerland’s federal parliament was about to vote on a bill that would make it the first country in Europe to ban the import of kosher meat. (Ritual slaughter of cows was outlawed in Switzerland in 1894 in legislation that the local Jewish community to this day views as essentially anti-Semitic.)

Tzipi Hotovely, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, escalated the matter even further in a move that may be connected to her government’s ongoing fight with European countries supportive of the Palestinian cause. (In June, Switzerland’s foreign minister, who in the past has refused to disclose funding for anti-Israel groups, reluctantly agreed to an audit following pressure by pro-Israel lawmakers.)

Hotovely demanded the Swiss government publicly condemn Thomann’s actions, which she said indicated the prevalence of anti-Semitism throughout Europe, a continent of some 750 million residents.

As is often the case when Jerusalem wades into the complicated debate about anti-Semitism in Europe, I felt that Hotovely’s claim was not only overblown and cynical, but also based on ignorance of the facts of the case at hand.

But almost immediately, I had to reconsider that judgment, too.

In the latest twist of a story that began with two laminated A4 sheets of paper, a Swiss lawmaker, the Socialist Roger Deneys, came along and proved Hotovely’s point. If anyone should apologize for the Swiss hotel incident, he wrote on Facebook, then it is Israel, “for its excessive tolerance of ultra-Orthodox Jews who prevent peace in Palestine.”

Following an outcry, Deneys deleted the remark and apologized.

After all, he said, he has nothing against Jews.