New Swiss president no longer considers herself a token Jew

"Because of my roots, I am more sensitive than others in the government to the whole problem," which was sparked by the years of unremitting charges about her country's wartime actions.

A member of the left-of-center Social Democrats, she assumed the position on Jan. 1 after a recent vote by the Swiss parliament. A largely ceremonial post, the presidency rotates on an annual basis among the Swiss cabinet's seven ministers.

Dreifuss was born in 1940 in an eastern Swiss canton, or state. As the Nazis approached the Swiss border, her family moved to Geneva — at the western edge of the country. During the war, her father aided Jewish refugees who sought haven in Switzerland.

The first Jew — and the first woman — to become president of the Alpine nation, Dreifuss will inherit a country coping with an anti-Semitic backlash following a Jewish campaign to force Switzerland to acknowledge the financial ties that existed between its leading banks and Nazi Germany.

Sources in the Swiss government said the new president has always maintained an excellent private relationship with the World Jewish Congress — the group that initiated the charges against the Swiss banks.

Dreifuss raised some eyebrows when she was among the few Swiss politicians to welcome the decision in August by two leading Swiss banks to pay a $1.25 billion settlement of Holocaust-era claims.

Regardless of the settlement, she insists that her country must work to deal honestly with its past. "It would be a catastrophe if this would mean we would consider our work over," she said.

Swiss Jewish groups have preferred to keep a low profile in their reaction to her being named to the presidency.

"Every Swiss Jew is proud" that she was elected, a senior member of the Swiss Jewish community said, but only on condition of anonymity.

Neither the Federation of Jewish Communities in Switzerland, the community's umbrella group, nor any other Swiss Jewish organization published a letter of congratulations to Dreifuss, fearing that such a move could provoke counter-statements from anti-Semites in the country.