What do Nazi Germany, urban redevelopment and the specter of eminent domain in America’s largest border city have to do with one another?
On the surface, it would seem, not very much. But in El Paso, Texas, where a political dispute over a proposed downtown redevelopment plan has spilled over into the ranks of the city’s Jewish community, the controversy has evoked language more likely to be heard in the halls of the city’s Holocaust museum than in the chambers of City Hall.
In a thorny debate pitting some of the most active members of El Paso’s minuscule Jewish community against one another — Jews number about 5,500 in a city of some 625,000 — accusations of unseemly political maneuverings have emerged.
At the center of the dispute is the city’s proposal to assert eminent domain, the legal concept that allows government bodies to forcibly buy property for public use at fair market value. In a sweeping plan unveiled last March to redevelop 127.5 acres of the city’s depressed downtown area, eminent domain has been included as a last-resort option if downtown building owners refuse to part with their property. The plan, which has since grown to encompass 135 acres, is supported by the city’s mayor and is moving forward, despite vocal opposition from some downtown business and property owners.
For Louis Rosenbaum, one of the most vociferous opponents of the redevelopment plan and a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany who settled in El Paso in 1947, the threat that the city could take over a building felt reminiscent of his childhood experience watching Nazis confiscate his family’s men’s clothing store.
“It’s forceful confiscation, that’s what it is,” Rosenbaum said, referring to eminent domain. “My mother lost her business overnight, and that’s exactly what is happening in El Paso.”
Rosenbaum, 81, is a longtime donor to local Jewish causes. He served for many years on the board of the Jewish federation and funded, among other things, the El Paso Holocaust Museum building, which opened in 1991. He also helped establish El Paso’s Chabad House. But when Rosenbaum invoked the Holocaust in a widely distributed April 27 letter arguing against the development plan, he raised the ire of some Jews in El Paso. A group of them published a May 11 response letter in the El Paso Times, saying that Rosenbaum was using the memory of the Holocaust to advance his political interests.
“A recent campaign mailer written by Louis Rosenbaum draws misguided parallels from the Holocaust to the local debate over Downtown redevelopment,” Larry Bach, rabbi of El Paso’s Reform synagogue, Temple Mount Sinai, wrote in a letter signed by 14 local Jewish community members. “We believe it inappropriate to compare the horrors of Nazi Germany to a local political issue.”
Many of the letter’s signatories are trustees of Temple Mount Sinai, but at the start of the letter, they write that “we speak only for ourselves as individuals and not for any organizations.”
Bach was traveling in Israel and could not be reached for comment.
One of the signatories to the letter, the president-elect of Temple Mount Sinai, David Kern, expressed concern that Rosenbaum’s parallel between eminent domain in El Paso and the expropriation of Jewish businesses by Nazi officers might do a disservice to those who are less educated about the horrors of the Third Reich.
“Given that many non-Jewish young people in El Paso and elsewhere don’t really know what the Holocaust was, we should be careful not to put information out there that could confuse them about it,” Kern said. “Louis Rosenbaum is a good man who has done a lot of good things for the El Paso Jewish community. We just disagreed with his reference to the Holocaust in the context of a dispute involving property interests in downtown El Paso.”
Rosenbaum and his two sons, Jerry and Marvin, own a significant swath of property in the downtown area — five buildings and a vacant lot that houses a 40-vendor flea market, as well as a bus company that operates from their lot. But despite his financial stake in the downtown area, Rosenbaum said, he is acting not out of self-interest but out of concern for the thousands of merchants, primarily first-generation Korean immigrants, who run businesses downtown.
In recent decades, the once-thriving downtown area has experienced a sharp decline. Where movie theaters and high-end retail stores once drew crowds from around the city, the downtown economy is now largely dependent on the sale of low-priced goods to thousands of Mexican citizens who each day cross one of two international bridges connecting downtown El Paso with Juárez.
It is precisely this economic downturn that vocal supporters of the plan hope to reverse in the city of El Paso, which now ranks as the second poorest city in the country. David Marcus — who, like Rosenbaum, owns property downtown and is active in Jewish causes — fiercely supports redevelopment and said that the plan, eminent domain included, will drive down property taxes, thereby benefiting all the city’s residents.
Jews in El Paso have a long and storied history. They first settled in El Paso in the mid-1800s, looking for business opportunities and a chance to settle in uncharted territory not yet tainted by antisemitism. Jewish El Pasoans founded some of the city’s most enduring cultural institutions, including the public library. Following the Holocaust, a group of 75 Jewish survivors settled in El Paso. And in recent years, the city’s Jewish population has benefited from an increasing number of Hispanic Jews descended from Mexican conversos — Jews forced to convert to Catholicism — who have reclaimed their religious roots and converted back to Judaism.
The city’s mayor, John Cook, said that he has given assurances to the Rosenbaums and to other Jewish business owners that he does not intend to abuse eminent domain. Cook, a native of the Bay Ridge area of Brooklyn who described himself as having a Jewish ancestry, expressed confidence that they would be reassured once the first piece of the redevelopment plan — a residential component, which, he says, will be announced at the end of the summer — goes through without major use of eminent domain.
“When they realize that we haven’t used eminent domain, hopefully it will allay a lot of their fears,” he said. “Right now, all they have is my good faith.”