In the latest egregious example of the danger of the very existence of the death penalty, Tom Ascol — the pastor who delivered the invocation at Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis‘ (R) second inauguration – has said that gay people should be put to death. Ascol made the comment in support of Uganda’s new “Anti-Homosexuality Act,” which punishes “aggravated homosexuality” with death.
One might dismiss this development as the distorted ramblings of a religious fundamentalist, albeit one who has the ear of a potential US presidential candidate. Indeed, Ascol’s literalist approach is anathema to rabbinic understandings of both capital punishment and homosexuality. However, when considered within the context of recent death penalty developments, Ascol’s comment serves as an ominous reminder that any nation that gives its government the power to murder its prisoners opens a Pandora’s Box to state killings that is an existential danger to all its citizens.
The pastor’s comment comes on the heels of DeSantis signing into Florida law one bill that allows non-unanimous juries to suffice for state killings, and another calling for the death penalty for child rape. Various other “pro-life” states across the USA recently also have proposed capital punishment for abortion, while calls across the nation remain ever-present for state murder for other non-lethal offenses.
Globally, many of the 30% of nations that still carry the death penalty also are expanding its use. Just last week, Zimbabwe made speaking out against the government a capital offense. In Iran, May, 2023 saw the largest monthly execution tally since 2015, as 142 women and men were executed, including many for blasphemy, drug-related charges and protesting the government. Regarding homosexuality, of the 62 countries where it is criminalized, it is punishable by death in Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Nigeria, Mauritania, Iran, Brunei, Afghanistan, and now Uganda. Extrajudicial killings for homosexuality also have occurred in many other locations, including in the Gaza Strip, where as recently as 2016 Hamas executed one of its own commanders, Mahmoud Ishtiwi, by firing squad over accusations of gay sex.
Some might take false comfort in Conservative Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s public distancing from Uganda’s recent “Kill the Gays” bill. Cruz tweeted that “this Uganda law is horrific & wrong…ALL civilized nations should join together in condemning this human rights abuse.” Yet, Cruz failed to recognize that 70% of world nations have, by international consensus, concluded that the death penalty itself – in any case – is an inherent violation of the fundamental human right of life itself. The thousands of members of the group “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty” are among these nations and view the comments of DeSantis’ pastor as emblematic of the dangers of keeping any death penalty “on the books.” Many L’chaim members, including this author, are direct descendants of Holocaust victims and survivors. They know very well that capital punishment is not the same as the Shoah/Holocaust. Yet, the shadow of the Holocaust is inextricably linked to their firm rejection of state killing in all cases, even that of the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue shooter. The most common form of execution used in the USA is lethal injection, which is itself a direct Nazi legacy, first implemented on Earth 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. Furthermore, across the USA, more and more states are erecting gas chambers, including one in Arizona that uses Zyklon B, the same lethal gas used in Auschwitz. For these reasons, as well as the death penalty’s proven racist application and its demonstrated fallacy of deterrence, L’chaim firmly believes that 21-century Judaism – and all of civilized humanity – must absolutely reject capital punishment.
L’chaim follows in the tradition of Jewish leaders who vociferously protested against Israel’s 1962 execution of Nazi perpetrator Adolf Eichmann, including renowned Hebrew university philosophers, Kabbalah scholar Gershom Scholem, and Jewish theologian Martin Buber, who called the execution a great “mistake.” Other Holocaust survivors, such as Nobel-prize winning author, Nelly Sachs, voiced strident opposition to Eichmann’s execution. It was Jewish human rights icon Elie Wiesel whose words still best reflect the stance of L’chaim. When asked about his feelings on capital punishment, Wiesel resolutely stated “Death is not the answer,” and made no exception, stating: “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.”
Some Americans might feel protected by the prospect of constitutional challenges to any draconian execution laws. The success of these safeguards ultimately is dependent upon Supreme Court Justices who interpret the constitution to that end. Now more than ever, this is far from guaranteed. Popular notions of which human beings constitute the “worst of the worst” and merit execution are fluid and not an ethical barometer for whom a government should be allowed to kill. Comprehensive death penalty abolition is the only way to prevent the man-made Angel of Death from being unleashed in America, as it has been elsewhere in our world. This is precisely why L’chaim chants “NEVER AGAIN to state-sponsored murder!” and…
… “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