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Michael Zoosman

Death Penalty Abolition IS a ‘Jewish Issue,’ even in California

Photo: A screenshot of Death Penalty Action’s “Jewish Actions and Resources” Page. Source: https://deathpenaltyaction.org/jewish-action/

Dear Friends in the Bay Area Jewish Community,

Shalom Aleichem from the thousands of international members of “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty.” We are here to remind you that, contrary to what some people in the Jewish community may profess, death penalty abolition is indeed a so-called “Jewish issue.” The abolition of this human rights abomination should be at the forefront of the hearts and minds of members od the Jewish community everywhere, including in the Golden State. Did you know there are Jews on California’s Row of Death at San Quentin State Prison. Even if not, Jews are in the forefront of struggles for justice both because it is our calling, and also because we know all too well what can happen when Government has too much power.

As recently as Jan. 2, 2023, the LA Times’ editorial entitled “Death Penalty’s Retreat is Excruciatingly Slow” highlighted the relevance of this issue for all Californians, reminding us that “more than 700 Californians remain under sentence of death and could conceivably be executed one day.”  Think about that. When’s the last time you saw hundreds of executed people all piled up? We certainly are not comparing executed Jewish families to the murderers condemned in the courts, but flip it around. Do we want to live under a government that kills like that?

We have written extensively about our experiences as Jewish abolitionists in our Times of Israel blog, which we feel should awaken the soul of any Jew or human being engaged in Tikkun Olam – repairing the world – to this issue’s relevance. You can peruse copious thoughts on this subject that our partners at Death Penalty Action have gathered online from a comprehensive cross-section of Jewish leaders the world over.  

This “Jewish issue” has a prominent place in our tradition. Many Western arguments about this lex talionis begin with the invocation of the Torah’s renowned phrase “eye for an eye,” while those same arguments then cast a blind eye toward how rabbinic tradition deals with this reality. Our Torah does indeed call for death for a slew of offenses – including insulting one’s parents, a sin for which I myself would have been executed long ago. Some of the loftiest figures among Chazal – our rabbis of blessed memory – strove to reconcile this.  Consider this often-quoted pericope from the Talmud, Mishnah, Makkot 7a:

“A Sanhedrin [Rabbinic court] that affects an execution once in seven years, is branded a destructive tribunal. Rabbi Eliezer ben Azariah says: once in 70 years. Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva say: Were we members of a Sanhedrin, no person would ever be put to death. [Thereupon] Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel remarked, they would also multiply shedders of blood in Israel!”

As this shows us, there were indeed dissenters among Chazal –  like Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel above – who were pro-death, citing factors of deterrence and other now antiquated notions of “justice.” We can forgive such sages for their views, which reflected the understanding of their times. Unlike them, we now are privy to the scientifically proven fact that deterrence is indeed a fallacy. Modern analyses have demonstrated this time and again. The Death Penalty Information Center outlines these in an erudite meta-study, concluding that “studies show no link between the presence or absence of the death penalty and murder rates.”  

The Jewish world is now rightly beginning to pay greater attention to this issue. In our featured post in the Times of Israel entitled “The Death Penalty is an Abomination”, we laid bare the psychological torture of our condemned penpals – Jewish and non – as they count down their days to execution. We shared how one of our Jewish pen pals, Randy Halprin, was sentenced to death under the medieval “Law of Parties” by an anti-Semitic judge, and was spared just days before his post-Yom Kippur execution date only a few years ago. 

This past year, Texas nearly marked Holocaust Memorial Day by killing an innocent woman, our pen pal Melissa Lucio, on that very day. Fortunately, we later could share in “Pikuakh Nefesh – Jewish Abolitionists help save the life of Melissa Lucio” how the Lone Star State called off her wrongful execution at the last minute after Jewish L’chaim co-founder and Death Penalty Action Director Abe Bonowitz led a massive nationwide campaign to share a documentary film about Melissa’s innocence. That film – The State of Texas vs. Melissa – itself was directed by Jewish L’chaim member, Sabrina van Tassel. The clear-cut case of Melissa’s wrongful conviction led us to explore other cases of wrongful execution in “Saving America’s Soul: Step 1: Abolition!” . These included that of George Stinney, Jr., a 14 yo Black boy executed in South Carolina and subsequently exonerated, a case which highlight’s exemplifies the inherent racism in how the death penalty is carried out.  

We highlighted the Nazi legacy of various forms of execution in our nation in “America’s Angel of Death: Sophie’s Choice 2.0”, which detailed the horrific option America gave to two cognitively impaired execution victims who were murdered this past International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, 2022. States gave them the choice to die either by lethal injection, or via their local gas chamber.

Arizona’s gas chamber in particular offers the use of Zyklon B, the gas of Auschwitz infamy, for some prisoners. One of these individuals was a pen pal of ours whose mother fled the Nazis – and who we believe was innocent. He was given the choice of Zyklon B or the “Nazi needle,” as we discussed in “Testimony from the next T4/Zyklon B Victim,” before he too was killed in yet another botched, torturous execution. Finally, we  emphasized how “Lethal Injection is a Nazi Legacy”, in and of itself, and first was implemented in our world by the Nazis as part of their infamous Aktion T4 protocol to kill people deemed “unworthy of life,” as crafted by Dr. Karl Brandt, personal physician of Adolf Hitler.  

We gained much international attention when we highlighted the case of our pen pal Ramiro Gonzales, a man who identifies with many Jewish practices and who sought to donate a kidney as teshuvah/repentance in the hope of trying to give life, while recognizing he never could replace the life he took. Ramiro demonstrated to the world what I learned long ago as a prison chaplain – that people indeed can change, and that individuals on Rows of Death are human beings – not monsters. 

Our focus remained in Texas for the case of our pen pal Kosoul Chanthakoummane, who maintained his innocence util the end. In “Wrong or ‘Dead Wrong,’” we framed his case within the statement of the Rambam, Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), who famously said “it is better to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death.” Texas disagreed and murdered Kosoul in cold blood this past August.

For “No Death Penalty: No Exceptions,” we discussed renowned Jewish death penalty abolitionists who realized after the Holocaust that state-sponsored murder was inadmissible for civilized humanity. This included Martin Buber, Elie Wiesel and countless others who opposed the execution of Adolph Eichmann. Wiesel himself famously said of capital punishment that “death is not the answer.” He also said this: “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.” Such is our anthem in L’chaim. 

We sent an open letter to our nation’s president in “Kol Nidrei: Biden’s Broken Vow on Death Penalty Abolition,” in the wake of the USA’s vote against a supermajority of 125 nations in the UN who called for a global moratorium on the death penalty this past December. As we chant Kol Nidrei every year in front of the Supreme Court for the national sin of the death penalty, so do we chant it now for Biden. On that same day in the UN, the outgoing Israeli government voted for a global moratorium, only to be followed a week later by the incoming government’s call to bring back state-sponsored murder to Israel. We berated the incoming prime minister about this in our open letter, “To PM Netanyahu from ‘L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty.’”

Finally, we shared the counsel of another modern-day Jewish sage: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, of blessed memory. “If I were queen,” Justice Ginsberg famously said, “there would be no death penalty.” As a Jew and as a human being, RBG knew very well “Why Abolishing the Death Penalty Matters” for any nation that hopes to have moral legitimacy on the global stage.    

And so, we vociferously submit that death penalty abolition indeed is a Jewish issue. If you agree, what then is your position on this most vital matter? We pray it will be to join our ranks in chanting “L’chaim – To Life!”

Cantor Michael Zoosman, MSM,

Board Certified Chaplain, Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains

Founder: “L’chaim: Jews Against the Death Penalty” 

Advisory Board Member, Death Penalty Action

Note: A redacted version of this post appeared as an an op-ed in The Jewish News of Northern California under the title “The Death Penalty is a Jewish issue,” even in California.” 

About the Author
Cantor Michael Zoosman is a Board Certified Chaplain with Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains (NAJC) and received his cantorial investiture from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 2008. He sits as an Advisory Committee Member at Death Penalty Action and is the co-founder of “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty.” Michael is a former Jewish prison chaplain and psychiatric hospital chaplain. Currently, he is a multi-faith hospital chaplain at a federal research hospital, the National Institutes of Health - Clinical Center. His comments here represent his own opinions.
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