I proudly held the sign of “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty” – a group of about 3,000 members – as I rallied this past November 14th as part of the Peace Bloc in the ~290,000-person strong March for Israel on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.. Many might rightfully ask: why did I choose to carry such a sign for this event?
As I have emphasized, it is indeed true that the death penalty and war are two separate issues. And yet, I maintain that the underlying value of life connects them both. Many would argue that both capital punishment and war are actions that are carried out – ostensibly – in the “service” of upholding the value of life. It is essentially for this reason that, rather than marching under the popular flags of “Bring Them Home Now,” or “Ceasefire Now,” I intentionally decided to amplify this ethical underpinning in my own small way amongst the throngs of people on the Mall in the hope that it might open some hearts and minds to this perspective. At the end of the day, it is this value of life – all life – that centers and grounds me. Many of my colleagues with T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights conveyed this same value of life at the rally, where they displayed the sign: “I stand with Israelis. I stand with Palestinians. I stand with humanity.” That sign reminded me of what fellow members of L’chaim and I chant at every execution vigil: “May the killings end.” I strive to honor the value of life as widely as possible in my own life, and it serves as a foundational principle for all my humanitarian, social and political views. Is this simplistic? Perhaps. Can it remain a guiding principle, nonetheless? Absolutely. As if on cue, one sign at the rally poignantly read: “when they go low, we go chai,” referring to the Hebrew word for “life.”
One particularly disturbing incident that I experienced at the rally directly addressed this theme. A man who was crossing paths with me noticed my sign, which again simply showed the name and Tree of Life logo for “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty.” This individual paused to reflect on this sign for a moment, before turning back and coming up behind me. This person then whispered in my ear the following: “Of course, if Israel had the death penalty, then there would have been no prisoners for Hamas to try to get back…” At that moment, I did not understand what I was meant to infer from this comment, and I simply said in response something to the effect of: “Okay.” It was only after he walked on that I realized the implication of his words. This fellow rally goer was suggesting that Hamas might not have carried out the atrocities of October 7th if all the terrorists that Israel had captured before that date had been put to death, rather than imprisoned. According to this line of thinking, Hamas would have been deterred from any campaign to capture Israelis, simply because there would have been no Hamas prisoners in Israel for whose release they might negotiate. This comment reminded me of the renewed calls heard now in Israel for the death penalty for Hamas terrorists. These advocates invariably refer to the outmoded idea that the death penalty can be a deterrence to future violence. L’chaim regularly reminds such death penalty proponents that metastudies have determined that deterrence is a lethal falsehood. An open letter that L’chaim sent to Prime Minister Netanyahu articulated just this point last year, when the current Israeli government first proposed the expansion of the death penalty for non-Israeli terrorists.
It was not long after I heard the whisper of death in my ear at the rally that I saw in the distance another protester holding up a sign that featured an iteration of the famous quote from Ghandi: “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” I was struck by how relevant this was to that very moment. Let there be no doubt: the promulgation of such false assertions as the one I received about the deterrence value of the death penalty leads to just that end: the death of everyone. Put another way, when humanity loses sight of the value of life, the vision of the collective future is bleak, if not doomed to failure. When the light of a life-centered moral and ethical framework is extinguished, all paths inevitably lead to the darkness of death.
Marching for life of course requires actions to support life. For me, this includes advocating to bring home all hostages through ceasefire and negotiation. (Of note, my personal views here do not reflect those of the members of L’chaim, whose opinions about the current war run the gamut, while remaining united in opposition to capital punishment.) In my opinion, war as an answer ultimately is unsustainable for a host of reasons, not the least of which is the inevitable temptation it offers for each belligerent party to seek revenge for the other’s most recent atrocity. This reality already is rearing its ugly head in this war, as the tally of retributions continues to mount. From the lens of this abolitionist, the value of vengeance that is inherent in war is a macrocosm of the value of bloodlust that fundamentally feeds the individual and collective urge for any death penalty – an urge that is invariably cloaked behind the veil of seeking “justice.” It is this very same fuel that fanned the flames of the two American executions that took place the day that I penned these very words.
I do not reside in Israel, nor am I in Gaza.
I have not lost a loved one in the region since October 7th.
I am not directly impacted by the horrors of what is occurring in that warzone, nor the details of every facet of the realities on the ground.
I cannot claim to be smart enough to know the exact recipe for bringing home the Israeli hostages held by Hamas, nor for stopping the killing of human beings in Gaza and Israel.
Nonetheless, I still stand behind what history has taught me to be a necessary ingredient for this recipe. It is an ingredient that Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel knew viscerally and articulated powerfully when he said of capital punishment: “Death can never be the answer in a civilized society.”
(I intentionally am taking a leap of faith in applying this value of life as articulated by Professor Wiesel – for whom I have the utmost respect – to this latest gruesome manifestation of the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian crisis. By doing so, I cannot help but feel that in some way I am offering expiation for Professor Wiesel’s deafening silence on the plight of Palestinians during his lifetime. I have no doubt that I, too, like most human beings, will be judged by posterity as having been silent in relation to contemporary moral and ethical issues to which my identity blinds me today, but which will seem glaring to future generations. As I can forgive Elie Wiesel for this, I hope that posterity will be able to forgive me for what I fail to see in the world around me today…)
I pray that a recentering of life as a foundational value will guide the actions of the Israelis, the Palestinians and all of humanity. The value of life must transcend those of bloodlust and vengeance. Until this is realized, human civilization will never be civilized, and the worst chapters of human history will be fated to repeat without end. Indeed: death is not the answer.
And so, I shall continue to march under the banner of life, as I chant unceasingly:
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