Michael Zoosman

‘NO to the Gas Chamber!’ – L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty

“L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty” co-founder Cantor Michael Zoosman, on Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman on Aug. 2, 2023, reiterating L’chaim’s opposition to the death penalty for the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue shooter, and in all cases. (Screenshot: No copyright.)

The thousands of members of “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty” stand together with all of civilized humanity against the use of any form of gas chamber – or any other means – to kill prisoners.

It is inconceivable that in 2023 the world still needs to hear the message that any government’s use of a gas chamber of any kind is inadmissible in the wake of the events of the twentieth century. And yet, in the past week alone, two American states once again have raised the scepter of the use of gas to put human beings to death.

Alabama indicated its intention of using gas for my penpal Kenny Smith, who just last year was brutally tortured for hours in the state’s botched attempt to execute him using the direct Nazi legacy of lethal injection. (Lethal injection of course was first implemented in this world by the Third Reich as part of their infamous Aktion T4 protocol used to kill people deemed “unworthy of life.” That program was devised by Dr. Karl Brandt, the personal physician of Adolf Hitler.) Alabama resident and former capital defender Stephen Cooper has written most powerfully for years about Alabama’s employment of these Nazi methods. 

This past week, as well, Ohio prosecutors also suggested the idea of resuming executions using nitrogen hypoxia. 

Two other states, Oklahoma and Arizona, also allow for the option of a gas chamber to kill their prisoners. 

Let there be no doubt: the use of gas to kill human beings against their will indeed predates the gas chambers used by the Nazis. The French first used it to kill prisoners of war on ships during the Haitian Revolution of 1803, and Nevada utilized it as early as the 1920s. Still, the association in the Jewish and human collective consciousness of gas chambers with the Holocaust is beyond question. For this very reason, last year an Arizona Jewish community sued that state for its plan to use Zyklon B, of Auschwitz infamy, in its gas chamber. 

In response to these nauseating developments.  L’chaim’s partners at Death Penalty Action already have gathered well over 10,000 signatures as part of a petition for Jews – and all humanity – to “Say NO to the gas chamber.” Many of these thousands of signatories, like many members of L’chaim and I myself, are direct descendants of Holocaust survivors and victims, and know better than most that the unparalleled conflagration that was the Holocaust is not the same as the use of gas to kill individuals on death rows. They – we – also know, however, that if the lessons of the past are not learned, they are bound to be repeated. 

It was twentieth-century Jewish human rights icon, Holocaust survivor and famed author Elie Wiesel whose words best encapsulated the stand of the members of L’chaim. When asked about his feelings on capital punishment, Wiesel resolutely stated “Death is not the answer in a civilized society.” On this, Wiesel made no exception, famously stating the following: “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.” 

Wiesel joined other Jewish human rights luminaries even in protesting Israel’s 1962 execution of Nazi perpetrator Adolf Eichmann. Renowned opponents included Hebrew university philosophers Samuel Hugo Bergmann and Nathan Rotenstreich, Talmudic scholar of Kabbalah Gershom Scholem, and Jewish theologian and philosopher Martin Buber, who called the execution “a great mistake.” Other Holocaust survivors themselves, such as Nobel-prize winning author, Nelly Sachs voiced their strident opposition to Eichmann’s execution.

The relevance of the death penalty for the Jewish world is readily apparent, now more than ever. I write these very words just weeks after the United States government issued the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue shooter a federal death sentence – which L’chaim vehemently opposed on national television – and just weeks ahead of Texas’ scheduled execution of L’chaim’s longtime Jewish pen pal Jedidiah Isaac Murphy on World Day Against the Death Penalty (October 10th). This is a Hineni  (“here I am”) moment for the American Jewish community to decide where it stands on this issue in an ostensibly Christian country that derives so much “inspiration” for capital punishment from a misinterpretation of the Torah verse “eye for an eye” (Deut. 19: 21

Carrying the torch of Elie Wiesel, the thousands of members of “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty”  firmly believe – for countless reasons already articulated (i.e. it is not a deterrent, it is racist in its application, it kills innocents, and it always leads to psychological torture) – that Judaism and all of humanity in the 21st-century must join the more than 70% of global nations that have unconditionally rejected capital punishment in all forms, including any form of the gas chamber. As those countries have come to understand, the death penalty condemns the society that enacts it infinitely more than any individual it condemns to death. May all my fellow Americans realize bimheirah v’yameinu – soon in our day – that the death penalty condemns us all.

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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