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Michael Zoosman

Gassing Execution Horrifies Jewish Groups

“L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty” chanting in protest in front of nitrogen tanks as part of Death Penalty Action’s online vigil to protest the first experimental execution via nitrogen gas on Jan. 25th, two days ahead of International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Alabama’s plan to inaugurate the next generation of a human gas chamber on January 25th is a repulsive affront to the thousands of international members of “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty.” On January 25th, Alabama will become the first state to attempt state-sponsored killing by strapping a mask onto a human being’s face and forcing him to inhale nitrogen gas in a process known as nitrogen hypoxia. Two days later, Alabama will tell the world that it honors International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27th, just as the state regularly hypocritically boasts of its commitment to the human right of life. This gassing is a nauseating slap in the face to Holocaust victims, survivors and descendants like myself and many L’chaim members and allies the world over who know better than most the lessons and legacies of that unparalleled mass murder.

L’chaim – meaning “To Life!” in Hebrew – has been doing all it can to sound the alarm of the collective Jewish and general consciousness over this abject abomination. As the co-founder of L’chaim, I am keenly aware od the public statements have rallied support for this cause, offering vivid reminders that Alabama intends to unleash this horror now of all times, when antisemitic incidents in the United States have recently witnessed a 400% increase since the onset of the Israel-Hamas War. Southern Jewish Life Magazine, AL.com, the Montgomery Advertiser, the Jurist, the Times of Israel and others have reported how Alabama has blindly scheduled this gassing just ahead of a day dedicated to remembering the Holocaust, and directly on the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat. Over 15,000 people have signed the petition of L’chaim’s partner Death Penalty Action to “Say NO to the Gas Chamber.” Rep. Philip Ensler, the only Jewish member of Alabama’s legislature and the Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of Central Alabama, has issued a statement against this gassing and will be joining in the rally at the capitol building in Montgomery in opposition to this unfolding nightmare. Alabama rabbis and community leaders from various Jewish denominations along with Jewish clergy from across the world have signed another petition asking Governor Kay Ivey to halt the gassing.   

And yet, all of these efforts have felt like nothing more than screaming into an empty void. The message has been muffled, as if covered by a gas mask like the one that will kill its intended victim by nitrogen hypoxia. It has failed to stop this latest interaction of the “machinery of death” from coming to fruition this week. 

This gassing will target Kenneth Smith, the same execution victim who Alabama tortured for hours on the gurney less than a year ago, when it failed at its attempt to execute him via lethal injection. It was this same lethal injection method that Alabama carried out to “commemorate” International Holocaust Remembrance Day just two years ago, when it put to death Matthew Reeves, a human being with severe, documented cognitive impairment. Let there be no doubt: lethal injection itself also is another direct Nazi legacy. It was first implemented in this world by the Third Reich as part of its infamous Aktion T4 protocol used to kill other such cognitively impaired individuals deemed “unworthy of life.” That protocol was brought to fruition by Dr. Karl Brandt, personal physician of Adolf Hitler, who personally signed off on it. It is precisely this T4 protocol that is among those monstrosities condemned on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Whether it is via lethal injection, Alabama’s nitrogen hypoxia, or gas chambers in other states – such as Arizona, which uses the gas Zyklon B (as employed in Auschwitz) – any method used for the state-killing of prisoners against their will continues this Nazi legacy of the same.

To put an end to these grotesque killing traditions and the cycle of violence, L’chaim’s thousands of members carry the torch of Holocaust survivor and staunch death penalty abolitionist Elie Wiesel. Of capital punishment, Wiesel famously stated, Death should never be the answer in a civilized society.” He added in an interview, in 1988: “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.” 

To make matters worse, Alabama’s reinvention of the gas chamber threatens to open a Pandora’s Box of similar killing experiments elsewhere across America. Many states – such as Nebraska, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Mississippi to name a few – are eagerly waiting in the wings to observe the results of this gassing in the hope that they, too, will be able to repeat the same process for other condemned human beings. An increasingly possible second Trump administration also watches from the sidelines as it undoubtedly hopes to add this execution method to its toolbox when it resumes its 2020-2021 federal killing spree.

And so, L’chaim will continue to send this urgent plea to all who will hear it to help sound this alarm. I fear that these messages will continue to be ignored. For the sake of all who proclaim “Never Again!,” in the hope that the world learns from the lessons of the Holocaust, I pray I am proven wrong…

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

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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