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Michael Zoosman

My Fellow Jewish Leaders Should Not ‘Toe the Party Line’ on Israel

This image was taken during an execution protest vigil at the US Capitol Steps and Department of Justice during the 10 Days of Repentance and just prior to the execution of Christopher Vialva, who corresponded with me, and who identifies with Jewish practices. My shirt says “I am Troy Davis.” Troy Davis was likely an innocent man executed by the state of Georgia in 2011. (Courtesy)
The author blowing the shofar in front of the Department of Justice in 2020 as part of a protest against federal executions in the United States. Source: Death Penalty Action
As the International Court of Justice prepares to begin hearings against Israel in a genocide case brought by South Africa, the author argues that when it comes to the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians — including children — in Gaza, his fellow members of the Jewish clergy should not be afraid to support a ceasefire…

It is in the best interest of the Jewish people and the state of Israel that my fellow Jewish leaders whose moral compass compels them to criticize elements of the Israeli government’s response to Hamas’ horrific Oct. 7 terrorist attack do so openly. They should speak truth to power, despite any fears for job security, however well-founded, at the Jewish institutions that they serve. Specifically, Jewish leaders whose conscience beckons them to call for a ceasefire should not feel muffled from doing so publicly, alongside the necessary demand for a safe return of all remaining hostages taken by Hamas on that awful Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah festival day.

As my esteemed colleague Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Executive Director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, concluded in a recent op-ed, “a negotiated end to the war … might well be the most pro-Israel, and the most Jewish, position that one can take.” And yet, many of my well-meaning colleagues who exercise leadership in the Jewish community remain reticent to advocate for this. I personally know many rabbis, cantors and Jewish communal and academic leaders who want to speak out against Israel’s handling of the war, but who feel trapped by the very real threat of losing their jobs were they to openly support a ceasefire, lest certain influential members — as well as well-endowed donors — of their respective communities might misconstrue this as “anti-Israel.” This of course is not limited to leaders in the Jewish community. The recent resignations of university presidents Claudine Gay from Harvard and Elizabeth Magill from the University of Pennsylvania after their Congressional testimony over accusations of antisemitism underscore the reality of this phenomenon, as does the recent finding that members of the U.S. Congress who have backed the Israel-Hamas war have received the most funding from pro-Israel donors.

I myself recently experienced a version of this moral distress. I am an ordained cantor, a member of the Jewish clergy. A prestigious North American Conservative Jewish congregation recently offered me what amounted to a “golden ticket” to serve as its cantor for what no doubt would have been a very lucrative employment package for my family, which includes my spouse and two young children. The only stipulation was that I was told in no uncertain terms that if hired I would need to “toe the party line” on political matters, which would mean ceasing and desisting from making any more public appearances or statements criticizing the actions of the Israeli government in Gaza. Realizing that this “golden handshake” was in fact “golden handcuffs,” I respectfully declined this most tempting offer.

As I stated in response to this well-intentioned synagogue, I very much understand and respect that pulpit clergy must strike a delicate balance in order to appease the divergent voices in their communities and maintain an extended version of “shalom bayit” (“peace in the home”). This is indeed a line that I once walked while serving in the pulpit before shifting to prison and hospital chaplaincy. It is not, however, a line that I feel ethically able to continue to straddle now in the face of the ongoing, unnecessary suffering and death that Israel chooses to continue to inflict in Gaza. Granted, it is much easier for someone like me to admonish Israel in this way, given that I do not represent a large congregation to whose members’ satisfaction the well-being of my children and family is tied. I also recognize that I might not have declined this ‘golden handcuffs’ offer if I were not already employed elsewhere as a chaplain. Precisely for these reasons, however, do I feel obligated to use my unique position as an ordained member of the Jewish clergy who does not represent a specific Jewish community to state my critique publicly in order to do my small part to help move the collective needle on this issue.

The metaphors of “golden handcuffs” and “moving the needle” are particularly relevant in my case. I am a former Jewish prison chaplain and the co-founder of “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty”, a group with over 3,000 members that has been extremely vocal in the international press in its attempts to mobilize the Jewish world to seek the abolition of capital punishment in the United States and the world. This includes many vociferous calls for Israel not to expand its current use of the death penalty to kill the terrorists who carried out the October 7th attacks. In this role, too, I have encountered many other Jewish leaders who have indicated that while they support this human rights issue, they are reluctant to get involved, given the “political” implications of doing so. This occurred especially in the wake of L’chaim’s vehement opposition to the death sentence for the Pittsburgh Tree of Life shooter this past year.

From the death penalty to the Israel-Hamas War, and any other human rights issues that might be erroneously labeled “too political,” I highly encourage my fellow Jewish leaders to remember the words of leadership gurus Marty Linsky and Ron Heiffetz, who in their seminal work Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading quoted John Ortberg’s famous line that “leadership is the art of disappointing people at a rate they can handle.” If this is not convincing enough, they might consider the dire warning of Holocaust survivor, Nobel laureate and unflinching death penalty abolitionist Elie Wiesel, who famously said:  “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

I am quite intentional in applying the words of Professor Wiesel – for whom I have the utmost respect – to this latest gruesome manifestation of the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian crisis. I choose to do so while remaining fully cognizant of Prof. 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 certain 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 given the context of all he endured, I hope that posterity will be able to forgive me for what I fail to see in the world around me today.

When it comes, however, to the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians — including children — in Gaza, I do believe that I see this particular human rights issue quite clearly. And so, as a cantor who holds in his heart a true Ahavat Yisrael (“Love of Israel”), I respectfully remind my fellow Jewish leaders who feel inhibited from joining me in advocating for a ceasefire of what Professor Wiesel famously said: “death is not the answer” in any civilized society … including  in Israel.

Cantor Michael J. Zoosman, MSM, is a board certified Chaplain (Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains), co-founder of  “L’chaim: Jews Against the Death Penalty” and a member of the advisory committee of Death Penalty Action.

This piece originally appeared on Jurist and is being re-published here with the express permission of the author. For correct citation: Michael J. ZoosmanJurist, January 10, 2024.

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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