I used to be an ardent supporter of the death penalty; today, I am the co-founder of “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty,” a group whose thousands of members stand against capital punishment in every case, without exception. My change of heart took place over three decades, including years of service as a Jewish prison chaplain.
Like many members of L’chaim who are descendants of survivors of the Holocaust, my lifelong wrestling with capital punishment is intertwined with the legacy of that unparalleled mass murder. We know very well that while the Holocaust and the death penalty indeed are entirely separate issues, the lessons about state killings learned from the Shoah have direct application to capital punishment, and we must heed these lessons to ensure that “Never Again” has any meaning at all. Recently, the world witnessed a synchronicity on April 18, 2023, which was Yom Hashoah/Holocaust Memorial Day in the Jewish calendar. That very same day, Florida’s Senate passed legislation that would allow for the death penalty for crimes not involving a homicide. This horrific alignment has prompted some reflection now on the connection between these two issues for me, as for many members of L’chaim…
Many of my childhood Passover Seders and Jewish/secular holiday gatherings were punctuated by my grandmother and her sister, of blessed memories, sharing details of their Holocaust experiences. Their survival – my very existence – would not have been possible without the martyrdom of Mr. Michał Cegielski, a Polish Catholic man who gave his life rather than give up the location of their hiding place on his farm. After decades of attempts to find this man’s identity, Mr. Cegielski now is rightfully honored in the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations in Yad Vashem in Israel.
It was a non-starter for me during my formative years that anyone who had murdered my many other family members who were killed – or Mr Cegielski – deserved to die. This logically extended to any human being who committed murder. As I saw it, lex talionis – the law of retribution – was clearly permitted by the Torah’s famous phrase “ayin takha ayin” (Lev. 24: 19-21) – “an eye for an eye.”
Not until my service as a Jewish prison chaplain in Canada did I seriously begin to explore the issue of state killings. I witnessed first-hand profound examples of repentance and change in individuals whose crimes might have qualified for the death penalty in various US states. I explored how rabbinic Judaism made the death penalty extremely difficult to carry out. I came to understand what many modern-day Jewish authorities have realized: that the notion of capital punishment as a deterrence to any would-be murderers – which was a main justification for keeping it on the Talmudic books – has been disproven time and again. At the same time, as I watched the saga of the execution of Troy Davis unfold in Georgia in 2011, the reality of the state killing innocent human beings hit home. I learned facts like how at least 190 people who had been wrongly convicted or sentenced to death in the US have been exonerated since 1972. Other human beings for whom significant doubt remained as to their guilt have been executed as recently as March of this year. I juxtaposed this reality with the clarion call of Jewish sage Rabbi Moses Maimonides on this matter, stating “it is better to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death.” (Sefer Hamitzvot, Prohibition, 290)
Still, some doubts lingered in my mind. What about “the worst of the worst” of offenders, or those – like Mr. Tsarnaev or Nazis – who had committed deadly acts of terror? Paradoxically, it took the shadow of the Holocaust itself to cast off my final misgivings for the light of abolition. I discovered to my shock that the main form of execution that we use here in the United States – lethal injection – is a direct Nazi legacy. Lethal injection was first implemented in our world by the Third Reich as part of their infamous Aktion T4 protocol, used to kill people deemed “unworthy of life,” as developed by Dr. Karl Brandt, personal physician of Adolf Hitler. If this were not enough, American states continue to build gas chambers throughout our land, with at least one state utilizing Zyklon B to kill its inmates.
Jewish human rights luminaries such as Martin Buber, Gershom Scholem and many others grasped the danger of giving the state the power to kill its prisoners long before I was born when they opposed Israel’s 1962 execution of Nazi perpetrator Adolph Eichmann. Furthermore, it was none other than renowned Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel who famously said of capital punishment: “Death is not the answer.” Prof. Wiesel also said the following, which has become our anthem in L’chaim: “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.”
Realizing that Buber, Scholem, Wiesel and other Jewish and non-Jewish human rights leaders were aligned with this cause made my change of heart complete. The Holocaust had morphed from one of the greatest justifications for the death penalty to the most significant reason to stand against state-sponsored murder in every single case, even for the Tree of Life synagogue shooter, whose capital trial is about to begin. If I could change my mind on this issue, so could anyone. I pray that one day all human beings will join the sacred cause of abolition and chant together in one unified human voice: “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