Stephen A. Cooper
Writer & Activist

Good Jews Must Actively Oppose the Death Penalty

Good people must oppose the death penalty, and I submit good Jewish people are especially obligated to do so because of our faith.

I have personal experience fighting the death penalty as a capital habeas attorney in Alabama, and, afterward, as a writer, so: taking direct action to oppose the death penalty comes naturally to me. But this is not so for many of my fellow Jews. This is perhaps particularly evident after the horrific anti-Semitic attack that took place at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, in October 2018; the attack killed eleven people (including several Holocaust survivors), wounded six, and was the deadliest attack on any Jewish community in the United States. The perpetrator, Robert Bowers, was sentenced to death in federal court.

Although President Biden promised to abolish the federal death penalty when he first ran for office, he lied, as evidenced in part by his administration’s successful pursuit of Bowers’s death sentence. Biden also lied when he promised to incentivize states to abolish the death penalty. These lies have consequences, and Biden’s indefensible death penalty inaction, and his silence on this issue since assuming the office of Commander-in-Chief is, as I’ve observed elsewhere, completely unacceptable.

But let’s return to Jewish people and why, despite heinous violent acts committed against Jews, we must, each and every one of us, take direct action in our lifetime to put an end to the scourge of the death penalty.

Jews, even those possessing an infinitesimally small number of what author Agatha Christie’s famous detective Hercule Poirot called those “little gray cells”—so important for thinking—know that the death penalty was long ago proven by experts not to be an effective deterrent. So, the fact Bowers was sentenced to death will not stop the next person who, due to their mental illness, hateful ideology, or some intermixture thereof, decides to enter a synagogue armed and hell-bent on evil.

Effective gun control, access to quality mental health treatment, and keeping the aberrant few like Bowers behind bars is more conducive to reducing acts of extreme violence than the state, usually many decades later, exacting the death of the offender. Conducting state executions as if we’re still living in biblical or medieval times—or in some freedom-and-rights deprived country such as North Korea, China, Saudi Arabia, and Iran—is the opposite of righteous Jewish action.

In his 1962 book “Judaism,” Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg wrote: “Man can descend to great depths, but he is not by nature irretrievably sinful. There are temptations to evil in the world but the path to piety is not in the renunciation of the world of the here and now. Man’s task is to hallow life, to raise the workday world in which he eats, labors, and loves, to its highest estate so that his every act reflects the divine unity of all being.”

Beau Shapiro, the Skirball Cultural Center’s first “Rabbi in Residence,” recently and elegantly opined: “Our obligation as Jews—and human beings—is to do what we can to alleviate the suffering of others, whoever they are, wherever they are.”

In Alabama, in January, a man was palpably tortured to death during his execution by nitrogen-gassing. Before that, Alabama amassed an extensive track record of slicing and sticking condemned men—and otherwise torturing poor people—sometimes to death. In February, Idaho had to give up trying to execute another man by lethal injection after 8 failed attempts to insert an IV line. During the execution of John Grant in Oklahoma, in 2021, Grant was observed to violently convulse and vomit during his botched lethal injection. And in Texas, last year, lawyers for the prison system violated legal ethics over expired execution drugs (causing a much, much greater likelihood of pain and suffering), but they were never disciplined. These examples are but drops in the still-being-filled bucket of barbaric, modern American torture.

Good Jewish people cannot stand by idly when such atrocities occur. We cannot fail to call out those responsible for botched executions, and demand that they change their unholy behavior; nor can we fail to vociferously protest whenever additional, future, ungodly, state-sanctioned executions are being planned. Good Jews must object in tangible ways—ways that are widely seen and heard. Good Jews should heed the example of Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, whom my friend and fellow Jewish abolitionist writer Cantor Michael Zoosman often quotes for the righteous proposition: “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.”

Beyond voting for anti-death penalty politicians and prosecutors—a great start—another direct action Good Jews can take to fight the death penalty is to join a death penalty abolitionist group like Cantor Zoosman’s: “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty.” All good Jewish people have a part to play in this fight—a fight for the sanctity, the dignity, and the holiness of all of God’s creation.

About the Author
Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California. Follow him on "X"/Twitter @SteveCooperEsq
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