Alabama has chosen this week to announce that it will inaugurate its newly-minted gas chamber at the end of January, 2024. We, the thousands of members of “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty” already have publicly expressed our outrage at the very idea of any gas chamber in the wake of the Holocaust. Let us contextualize now the fact that Alabama has elected to make this public gassing announcement at this moment in time, while incidents of Anti-Semitism are on a 400% rise across the United States, and as Islamophobia and anti-Arab hate have increased exponentially. I myself recently experienced one such incident just last week. After I dropped off our three-year-old daughter at her Jewish preschool, I looked up and saw the words “DEATH TO ISRAEL” scrawled in large spray-painted letters across the bus stop nearest the preschool. (Of course, I reported this immediately to the proper authorities). In the eleven years that I have been connected to the Jewish institution where this incident occurred, I have never seen anything like this. This antisemitic incident came in the wake of the grotesque terrorist attack against Israel on October 7th – the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust – and the deadly Israel-Hamas war that it sparked. Since that time, individuals with hatred in their hearts – no matter the religious or cultural background – feel more emboldened than ever to act upon that hatred. These are indeed singularly fraught times in the United States and across the world. Alabama’s decision to announce a gas chamber now reflects at best a tone-deafness that is profoundly dangerous, if not lethal, and at worst a willingness to fuel the fires of collective bloodlust by resurrecting the horrors of the gas chamber from historical memory, and thrusting it into a renewed reality.
To place this gassing announcement in further context, as I write this post today it is the 85th anniversary of Kristallnacht, an infamous pogrom against Jews that the Nazis, Hitler Youth and German civilians carried out across Nazi Germany on November 9-10th, 1938. Historians view Kristallnacht as the ominous prelude to the Final Solution and the murder of six million Jews during the Holocaust. America’s observance of Kristallnacht today, for the second year in a row, “featured” yet another premeditated act of state-sponsored violence and vengeance when Texas executed our pen pal Brent Brewer earlier this evening. This will be followed next week by a double-execution day on November 16th, when Texas will put to death our pen pal David Renteria and Alabama will kill our pen pal Casey McWhorter. Yet another state killing is slated for the same month, when our pen pal Phillip Hancock is to be slaughtered, despite the fact that his parole board already has recommended clemency.
To make matters worse, Alabama has stated that it elects to carry out this gassing on January 25-26th, just ahead of International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27th. This is not the first time Alabama has scheduled an execution on or near this solemn day. In 2021, Alabama was one of two states to carry out state killings – each of cognitively impaired individuals – on International Holocaust Remembrance Day itself. In recent years, states such as Florida and Texas also have scheduled executions directly on Yom Hashoah – Holocaust Memorial Day in the Jewish calendar.
Let there be no doubt: Alabama’s decision to gas a human being to death is an abomination of the highest order and viscerally terrifying for many like myself and many of the members of L’chaim who are direct descendants of Holocaust survivors and gas chamber victims. We know as well as anyone – if not better – that judicial executions are not the same as Kristallnacht, nor the Holocaust/Shoah that it foreshadowed. We are very well-aware that the Holocaust was a genocidal conflagration of singularly horrific proportions and one that impacts generations of Jews and human beings like ourselves. And yet, we also are keenly cognizant of the lessons in human rights that must be learned from the Holocaust – lessons that indeed apply to Alabama’s inaugural use of the gas chamber. Like the various American gas chambers now being considered for state killings across the country, including the use of Zyklon B itself (of Auschwitz infamy), this method of state killing will forever be inextricably tied to the Third Reich. While the Nazis were not the first to utilize the gas chamber, their use of it for genocide means that this mode of execution can never again be separated from Hitler’s Germany in the collective consciousness. Nor should it ever be.
And yet, there is more…
The individual that Alabama intends to gas to death is our pen pal Kenny Smith, who one year ago (11/17/22) survived hours on the gurney during a torturous, failed lethal injection attempt. Like the gas chamber, lethal injection also is a direct Nazi legacy. It was first implemented in our world by the Nazis in 1939 – a year after Kristallnacht – as part of their infamous Aktion T4 protocol to kill people deemed “unworthy of life,” as designed by Dr. Karl Brandt, personal physician of Adolf Hitler. In this way, Alabama has managed to combine two Nazi killing methods in one monstrously fell swoop.
Just as Kristallnacht opened the floodgates for more killing decades ago, so too does America’s decision to give the state the power to kill defenseless prisoners – by these Nazi means, no less – open the proverbial Pandora’s Box of state killing at a time when anti-semitic and anti-Arab violence in the United States seem to be at a breaking point. Jewish death penalty abolitionists have warned us for decades of what can happen when we open the door to state-sponsored killing. Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel knew very well of the danger of inviting the Angel of Death, and famously said of capital punishment: “Death is not the answer.” Prof. Wiesel also said this, which is akin our anthem at L’chaim:
“With every cell of my being and with every fiber of my memory I oppose the death penalty in all forms. I do not believe any civilized society should be at the service of death. I don’t think it’s human to become an agent of the angel of death.”
It is for this reason that renowned Jewish leaders such as Martin Buber were appalled at the Israeli government’s execution of Adolf Eichmann and protested it until the very end. Over time, more and more Holocaust survivors like Eva Mosez Kor and their scions began to champion ideas of restorative justice, rather than execution. A most powerful example of this is a stirring op-ed from Jewish abolitionist and fellow third-generation Holocaust survivor Stephen Cooper, entitled “A Life Without Parole Sentence – not the Death Penalty – for Hitler.”
We, the thousands of members of “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty,” stand with the more than seventy percent of nations in the world that have abolished the horror of capital punishment, as we advocate for absolute abolition – without exception. Alabama’s decision to rely on a chamber of gas to put a defenseless human being to death not only places all of America on the wrong side of history, but it threatens to further ignite passions for vengeance and bloodlust at an incredibly perilous time in the United States and across the world. We at L’chaim will not stand by silently and allow history to repeat itself without raising our voices vociferously in objection.
It happened before; it can happen again…
And so, we say: “NO to the gas chamber!”And instead chant: “L’chaim: to Life!”
Cantor Michael J. Zoosman, MSM
Board Certified Chaplain – Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains
Co-Founder: “L’chaim: Jews Against the Death Penalty”
Advisory Committee Member, Death Penalty Action