Michael Zoosman

L’chaim Marks Five Years Since Tree of Life Shooting – and War: ‘May the Killings END!’

The official logo of "L'chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty" features at its core an Eitz Chaim - the Tree of Life.

Today marks five years since the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue shooting – the deadliest antisemitic attack in American history. We, the thousands of members of “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty,” reiterate now what we wrote in the Times of Israel and stated publicly in our opposition to the verdict of death for the Tree of Life shooter:

Zichronam Livracha – May the memories of all those whose lives were taken that horrific day be for an everlasting blessing. 

May their loved ones be comforted among all the mourners of the world. 

May the killings END. 

In the wake of the October 7th Hamas terrorist attacks in Israel – the deadliest single-day killing of Jews since the Holocaust – and the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas, today’s solemn anniversary of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting merits some reflection as to what we mean specifically when we write above (as we always do) “may the killings end.” Indeed, just three days after the start of the current war –  on October 10th, World Day Against the Death Penalty –  the last human being that America executed to date was davka – of all people – our sincerely repentant Jewish pen pal and friend Jedidiah Murphy, who offered a prayer for Israel in one of his final statements before Texas put him to death via the direct Nazi legacy of lethal injection. Since the outbreak of war and Jedidiah’s execution, members of L’chaim have received questions as to whether we still would oppose the death penalty for any captured perpetrators of terror or war crimes. To this, we resoundingly reiterate our position that we remain against judicial executions in every single case. We have effectively itemized our reasons for this unequivocal opposition in the dozens of posts we have offered in our blog in the Times of Israel.

It merits repeating that the issue of the death penalty should not be conflated with war. L’havdil – as is said in Hebrew – these are two distinctly separate issues. During the Second World War, the Allies had every right to use deadly force to attack the Nazi military – the aggressor –  that threatened them with destruction. Given the stated aims of the Third Reich, peace unfortunately could not have been achieved without war between armies. Few would argue against this point. Jewish human rights activists also were right to oppose executions for captured Nazis, including even for Adolf Eichmann, the infamous Final Solution architect whom Israel tried for war crimes and ultimately put to death against their protests.

So too, in the current war, Hamas – as it explicitly states in its original charter – has the intention of annihilating Israel, rejecting the idea of coexistence. If Israeli forces were to capture all the perpetrators of recent terrorist attacks and slaughterers of innocent people, and if they were to put them on trial in a court for war crimes, the members of L’chaim would vehemently oppose any sentence of death for them. Unfortunately, the current Israeli government has the stated intention of expanding its use of the death penalty for terrorists. L’chaim already has articulated our emphatic opposition to Israel’s intentions to do this in an open letter we published to Prime Minister Netanyahu about this very issue. Likewise, we also would oppose death sentences meted out for any captured Israeli forces found guilty of war crimes during this war or any conflict.

Opposition to the death penalty does not mean opposition to taking the steps deemed necessary for personal and national self-defense. Recall that it was of capital punishment specifically that Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel famously said: “Death should never be the answer in a civilized society.” This statement does not mean that Wiesel would have rejected going to war with the Nazi regime that exterminated his family and people in order to stop their rampage and barbaric acts.

The moral reasoning underpinning our opposition to the death penalty is twofold: it cannot be justified as an expression of justice, and its use as an instrument of revenge is never morally justifiable. To the extent that the armed conflict in which Israel is participating is neither justice nor revenge, a different moral reasoning applies. That is the reasoning of jus ad bellum (just war theory) and jus in bello (the laws of war). Both Israel and Hamas are bound by these rules, but they are not meant to avoid all killing of combatants in the conduct of war.  

Non-combatants, however, are another matter entirely. L’chaim is not a group of individuals that profess to be experts in the ethics of wartime engagement. Still, we absolutely and without exception support minimization of civilian casualties as much as humanly possible during any war, including the current one. We pray for a safe return home of all hostages and a swift end to this war. We also pray for an end to the pandemic of hate that has exploded in its wake. For this reason, L’chaim has joined over 150 other Jewish organizations in signing a statement condemning Islamophobia and anti-Arab hate in all forms.  We say NO to all forms of hate, just as we say NO to any and all judicial executions. 

Ultimately, the kavanah/intention that was in our hearts when we formed L’chaim three years ago holds true today, even at this time of war: may we bring upon a day in our world when all killing will end. We, the undersigned, speaking in this respect only for ourselves and not for any of the members of L’chaim, personally believe that this end is best achieved by an immediate ceasefire, which we view as the most humanitarian path toward ending the killing.

L’shalom ul’chaim – for Peace and for Life,

Cantor Michael 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

Abraham J. Bonowitz

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

Executive Director & Co-Founder, 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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