Image: Gas Mask used in Auschwitz (1940-1945). Collection of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. Photo taken by Stephen A. Cooper, Esq.
A lawyer-turned-death penalty abolitionist and a Jewish cantor join forces for JURIST to argue that the Jewish community has a unique obligation to voice resistance to Alabama’s plans to begin using nitrogen gas as a means of executing death row convicts. In Part 1, Stephen Cooper reflects on his great-grandmother’s death in a Nazi death camp, and how this has informed his career, first as a federal defense attorney, and ultimately in death penalty activism. In Part 2, Cantor Michael J. Zoosman considers the lasting legacy of the Holocaust for all Jews, and reflects on what he sees as the necessity of “marching for life until all the killings end.”
Part 1: “I’m fiercely proud of my Jewish heritage. And I’m proud to speak out against horrific acts of violence”
One of the last bits of vital family information my mom told me, before a likely COVID-induced stroke robbed her, in 2021, of her ability to speak, to walk, or to live independently was this: my great-grandmother was gassed to death during the Holocaust because she was Jewish.
I don’t remember much else about that conversation; one of the things I’ve learned as I age is how often critical moments in your life story exist only as much as you can remember their details. Then they recede like a setting sun; like twinkling embers, they fade to a pitch blackness.
What little I do remember about the conversation is that the subject came up because, as a former Assistant Federal Defender in Alabama, I have a personal history of representing death-sentenced defendants in state and federal courts. And after I transitioned to my current career as an abolitionist writer, my mom and I were talking about news reports on Alabama’s announcement of a ghoulish proposal to gas its condemned citizens to death with nitrogen.
The execution of condemned prisoners—in the U.S. and everywhere in the world where such barbarity continues under the color of law—is, of course, not the same as the extermination of over 6 million Jews during the Holocaust.
Nothing on the face of the earth, we can only hope and pray, could ever again rise to the abject horror and scale of that singular atrocity.
But although it isn’t “the same,” the Nazis who gassed my great-grandmother to death were capable of doing that to her — just as Alabama has now scheduled the first nitrogen-gassing execution ever, during a 30-hour period commencing January 25. In our view, gassings can only be rooted in a hatred for shared humanity — the sort of “othering” that enabled the systematic murders of six million Jews.
In 1945, Auschwitz Sonderkommando survivor Henryk Tauber recalled: “At about head height for an average man the gas door had a round glass peephole. On the gas chamber side of the door, this opening was protected by a hemispherical grid…because the people in the gas chamber, feeling they were going to die, used to break the glass of the peephole. But the grid still did not provide sufficient protection and similar incidents recurred.”
In the same way death penalty proponents see condemned murderers as inhuman—and therefore ripe to be tortured by lethal injection, or now, with this nitrogen-gassing experiment—with the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question,” the Germans sought not only to kill every last Jew, but also to remove all evidence of their very existence.
Because of what has happened to us in our history—the hatred, the hurt, the humiliation, the denial of our humanity—and because of the commonality of this experience with condemned prisoners, I believe strongly that Jewish people have an obligation to be death penalty abolitionists. And we must speak out against abominations such as nitrogen-gassing executions.
A placard at a current exhibition about the Holocaust (“Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away.”)—at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library explains: Jewish people are duty-bound to continuously engage “with ethics and rituals known as ‘Halakhah’ (which means, ‘the way of walking’). This is because Judaism focuses on issues of behavior, not faith. The key question for Jews is not, ‘What may I believe?’ but ‘What shall I do next?’”
In his 1962 book, Judaism, Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg wrote: “The emphasis of Jewish faith is therefore neither on metaphysical speculation nor on dogma but on human action. Life is the arena of moral choice, and man can choose the good.” Devout Jews generally accept that in a modern, civilized society, capital punishment is evil. And because of that undeniable knowledge, that we can—and more importantly, that we should—abolish the death penalty period, and immediately, we must campaign—and we must campaign hard—against Alabama’s planned January nitrogen-gassing abomination. The same is true for all other executions being planned in other states.
For Rabbi Hertzberg also wisely wrote: “Man is not responsible for himself alone. He is responsible to society for the well-being of all men. There must therefore be law in society and respect for government, unless society itself transgresses the moral law. The rights of individuals are absolute, for every man is created in the divine image. Each has his particular virtue and capacity for service.” Hertzberg did not elide condemned citizens from his vision. (Instructively, 30 years after Hertzberg, Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote in his book “To Life”: “How can we exercise our humanity in the direction of goodness? By freely choosing to do what God would have us do, instead of following our instincts as all other animals do.”)
I’m fiercely proud of my Jewish heritage. And I’m proud to speak out against horrific acts of violence, especially ones carried out—or that have been scheduled by government officials, such as the nitrogen-gassing execution of death-row prisoner Kenneth Smith—in a country I call “home.” Fellow abolitionist writer and my co-author, Cantor Michael Zoosman—a man I’m proud to call “friend”—feels the same as I do; indeed, it’s through this mutuality of beliefs that we first connected. Cantor Zoosman will now, in the remainder of this essay, take up our joint call for Jews to speak out against nitrogen gassing executions—and state-sanctioned killing generally.
Part 2: “Our cause today is arguably the most fundamental human right of all: the right of life itself”
Stephen Cooper, who I equally am honored to call a friend and abolitionist colleague, has articulated exactly why in 2020—amidst the federal killing spree of the Trump administration, I as a former Jewish prison chaplain co-founded the group “‘L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty.” “L’chaim” has since blossomed under its logo of an Eitz Chaim (Hebrew: a Tree of Life) to 3,000 members across the globe.
The word L’chaim is the Hebrew translation of “To Life,” the very title of the aforementioned book by the late Rabbi Harold Kushner, of blessed memory. It is indeed “L’chaim/To Life!” that the members of this abolitionist group ceaselessly chant as we do all we can to protest every execution in the United States—and in this world.
Like Stephen and many of the members of L’chaim, I too am the direct scion of Holocaust survivors. For so many of us, the shadow of that unparalleled conflagration and mass state-sponsored murder is one of the central reasons why we know 21st-century Judaism should reject the death penalty. It is precisely why L’chaim members scream “No” to the gas chamber, in any form, whether nitrogen gas in Alabama or Zyklon B—of Auschwitz infamy—in Arizona. It is also why we oppose any method of state-sponsored murder, including lethal injection, the most common form of state killing in the United States, and the means by which Alabama failed to torture to death our pen pal Kenny—the very same Kenneth Smith that the state intends to gas next year. Let there be no doubt: lethal injection is a direct Nazi legacy, first implemented in this world by the Third Reich as part of their infamous Aktion T4 protocol to kill people deemed “unworthy of life,” as developed by Dr. Karl Brandt, the personal physician of Adolf Hitler.
Alabama’s decision to inaugurate its gas chamber on January 25-26th, just one day ahead of International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27th—and while the United States has experienced a roughly 400% increase in incidents of anti-Semitism in the wake of the terrorist attacks of October 7th, and the ensuing horrors of the Israel-Hamas War—is a horrific reminder of just how easily history can repeat itself. Unless humanity joins the Jewish community in taking active steps to remember and prevent a rekindling of the horrors of the past, the details of history—like Stephen has indicated above—will tend to recede like twinkling embers…of the crematoria.
Holocaust survivor and staunch death penalty abolitionist Elie Wiesel knew this viscerally. Of capital punishment, Wiesel 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.” Many Jewish denominations agree. On October 15, 2013, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Movement—whose affiliated Seminary I attended—unanimously approved of a response entitled: “Participating in the American Death Penalty” by Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky. In it, Rabbi Kalmanofsky reiterated what other 20th-century rabbis previously had stated unequivocally, concluding: “We Jewish citizens should argue for abolition.”
And so, argue we shall. Echoing Rabbi Hertzberg above, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously wrote: “A Jew is asked to take a leap of action, rather than a leap of faith.” Heschel indeed wrote that he felt that his “legs were praying” when he marched side-by-side in Selma on March 21, 1965, with another renowned death penalty abolitionist by the name of Martin Luther King, Jr. Their sacred cause on that day was civil rights; our cause today is arguably the most fundamental human right of all: the right of life itself. When it comes to casting out the man-made “Angel of Death” from the United States and the world, L’chaim members work assiduously to mobilize the Jewish community to actively advocate for abolition wherever we are. Just as the Auschwitz Sonderkommando survivor Henryk Tauber—cited by Stephen above—described our ancestors repeatedly breaking the glass of their small window of hope as they tried to escape from their gas chambers, we, their descendants, shall continue to strive to break through the glass ceiling of human rights that America maintains for the human beings it condemns to death. And we shall not stop marching for life until all the killings end.
Cantor Michael J. Zoosman