Chabad buidling
Building in Litchfield, CT, which Chabad planned to expand. Photo by Chabad
Text size

A U.S. District Court ruled two days ago against the Chabad branch in Northwest Connecticut, dismissing its lawsuit that a decision by Litchfield town officials to deny Chabad's plans to dramatically expand a historic building in the town was based on religious discrimination. The Chabad lawsuit also cited the Holocaust and the Nazi treatment of Jews in Germany as a relevant example of religious discrimination. The court accepted the Historic District Commission's claim that it had simply been making a decision on appropriate land-use and that the expansion sought by Chabad would "overwhelm" the affluent town's historic center.

Since I have not seen the house in question, I can't express an opinion on the architectural merits of either side of the argument. Neither can I judge, not having heard them, whether the utterances of some of the commission members did indicate religious discrimination or even worse. The quotes that have appeared are, at worst, ambiguous, and as Harold Abrahams said in Chariots of Fire, anti-Semitism is something you hear "on the edge of a remark." I would though like to make a number of observations.

1. Chabad, the world around, is a bulldozer of a movement, which believes that no obstacle can stand in its way for long. This has led its emissaries in many parts of the world to adopt an extremely forceful attitude towards opponents. In places like Russia and Ukraine, Chabad rabbis have blatantly usurped sitting rabbis, claiming that they are the local chief rabbis. While the bellicosity is usually reserved for Jewish rivals and a case of the movement openly defying local authorities is less-typical, the sledgehammer approach, playing the Holocaust card in what was a planning dispute, is entirely in character.

2. The local leader of Chabad, Rabbi Joseph Eiesenbach seems to be exhibiting a total lack of proportion in seeking an expansion of a 2,500 square feet house to a structure of over 20,000 feet (the commission was willing to consider an expansion to 5,000 sq/ft). Who would fill such a megalith? Less than 9000 people live in Litchfield and as Eisenbach himself observed two weeks ago on a Chabad website, "the majority of the town is not of a Jewish faith."  Chabad Northwest Connecticut already has a headquarters in the much larger city of Waterbury. Chabad, probably the most successful global Jewish franchise, has built up centers in the most obscure corners of the world and Eisenbach may be eager to emulate his colleagues on the peaks Kathmandu and beaches of Goa but it looks like he has chosen the wrong location for a mega-synagogue.

3. While a principled debate is raging on whether it is appropriate for Israeli leaders to cite the Holocaust as a justification for attacking Iran's nuclear installations, using the Shoah in this kind of case should automatically disqualify a plaintiff.