What do mosque minarets and kosher slaughter have in common? Both are banned in Switzerland, a free, liberal, secular and democratic country.

The decisive majority in a recent referendum in favor of banning minarets on any mosques built in the country in the future did not surprise people familiar with Swiss history. The results stemmed from the fact that the Swiss People's Party, one of the country's leading parties, has adopted a policy toward immigrants that borders on overt racism. But it is also a function of a dark and intolerant aspect of Switzerland's democratic tradition that, paradoxically, relates to the status of referenda in the country's constitution.

Switzerland was the last country in Europe to give women the right to vote. When the state's modern constitution was drafted, in 1874, it was liberal and enlightened by the standards of the times, when women were not allowed to vote in national elections anywhere.

In Switzerland, a referendum was needed to change this. But successive referenda failed to enfranchise women, despite the fact that in several cantons they were allowed to vote.

The right of women to participate in federal elections was secured only in the 1971 referendum. Even then, 34 percent of (male) voters were opposed, demonstrating that a significant proportion of the population did not conform to the country's liberal norms.

Swiss history is not so simple when it comes to the rights of Jews, either. As in other areas of Europe, from the end of Medieval times most Swiss cantons had barred Jews from settlement. Progress came after the French Revolution of 1789, and Switzerland's 1874 federal constitution assured freedom of religion to all. In the years that followed, conservative circles in the country sought to prevent massive Jewish immigration from Czarist Russia.

But since the constitutional principle of freedom of religion could not be attacked, the goal was achieved in a roundabout manner. In the name of the humane treatment of animals, harsh propaganda was circulated that presented kosher slaughter as cruel. This led to a grassroots initiative to prevent "cruel slaughter."

An 1893 referendum amended the constitution to prohibit kosher slaughter throughout the country. The obvious goal was to deter Jews from settling in Switzerland.

The ban is still in effect, and observant Jews in Basel, Zurich and Geneva must import kosher meet from France or Germany. The restriction is not onerous, but behind it is a deep-rooted animosity on the part of large swathes of Swiss society toward those who are seen as foreign and different.

It is clear that the same circles that sought to prevent Jewish immigration by banning kosher slaughter over a century ago now seek to end Muslim immigration by banning mosque minarets. The Swiss Jewish community understood this, and vehemently opposed the minaret ban.

The impetus for the ban on minarets, like the ban on kosher slaughter, came from the street, from "the people." The Swiss establishment supported freedom of worship for Jews and opposed the minaret ban.

It is precisely the popular aspect of the Swiss constitution - the public referendum - that proved in these and in many other issues that certain elements of the population are sometimes much less tolerant and liberal than the social elites, and that in such cases the "will of the people" is identical to society's darkest trends.