(Photo-Justin Elson-Flickr Commons)
(Photo/JTA-Justin Elson-Flickr Commons)

The death penalty is a Jewish issue, even in California

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The death penalty is a Jewish issue, and one that impacts Jews everywhere, including in the Golden State. There are 671 people on death row in California, including some Jews. And even if there were no Jews on death row, we Jews must be in the forefront of struggles for justice because it is our calling — and because we know all too well what can happen when a government holds the power of death.

A recent Los Angeles Times editorial, “Death Penalty’s Retreat Is Excruciatingly Slow,” as well as a Jan. 13, 2023, NPR story about a proposal to dismantle the Golden State’s death row highlighted the relevance of this issue for all Californians, reminding us that “more than 700 Californians remain under sentence of death and could conceivably be executed one day” if a future governor restarts the state’s machinery of death.

To be clear, the death penalty is not the same as the Holocaust, by any stretch. But do you want to live under a government — any government — that has the power to kill defenseless citizens it has imprisoned?

The horror of that possibility is why I helped found L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty.

Many who support executions cite the Biblical legal maxim “an eye for an eye” — an argument that casts a blind eye toward how rabbinic tradition deals with the reality of execution. Our Torah does indeed call for death for a slew of offenses — including insulting one’s parents, a sin for which I myself would have been executed long ago. But consider what the Talmud has to say in Makkot 7a:

“A Sanhedrin [Rabbinic court] that affects an execution once in seven years, is branded a destructive tribunal. Rabbi Eliezer ben Azariah says: once in 70 years. Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva say: Were we members of a Sanhedrin, no person would ever be put to death. [Thereupon] Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel remarked, they would also multiply shedders of blood in Israel!”

As this passage shows us, there were indeed dissenters among Chazal — our rabbis, of blessed memory — who were pro-death penalty. Like Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel, they cite factors of deterrence (i.e., that the death penalty somehow inhibits the “shedders of blood”) and other now-antiquated notions of justice. We can forgive such sages for their views, which reflected the understanding of their times. However, we now have scientific proof that deterrence is indeed a fallacy. Rather, penal systems provide us protection from those who have done horrible things.

One fact that stands out about our modern penal system is the Nazi legacy of some forms of execution in use today in the U.S. Lethal injection was first implemented by the Nazis as part of their infamous Aktion T4 protocol to kill people deemed “unworthy of life,” as crafted by Dr. Karl Brandt, personal physician of Adolf Hitler.

Unfortunately, the connection does not end there. Just last year, the state of Arizona offered a horrifying choice to a mentally ill man condemned to execution — on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The choice was this: murder by lethal injection or by gas chamber. And guess which gas is used in Arizona’s gas chamber? For some prisoners, it’s Zyklon B, of Auschwitz infamy.

Many of the more famous Jewish death penalty abolitionists realized after the Holocaust that state-sponsored murder was inadmissible for civilized humanity. They included the philosopher Martin Buber, Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel and countless others who opposed the execution of even Adolph Eichmann. Wiesel himself famously said of capital punishment that “death is not the answer.” He also said this: “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.”

Seventy percent of the nations of the world have heeded the lesson that Wiesel conveyed and have abolished the death penalty. The most recent was Zambia in December, when it became the 25th sub-Saharan African nation to do so.

And yet, here in the U.S.A., we in the Jewish community continue to live in a land where this brutal practice is carried out in dozens of states, as well as on the federal level — in all our names. Just this past December, our U.S. government once again voted against a supermajority of 125 countries in the United Nations who called for a global moratorium on the death penalty, breaking one of President Joe Biden’s promises.

Israel also has failed to heed Wiesel’s warning. While the outgoing Israeli government voted for a global moratorium on the death penalty in the aforementioned U.N. vote, a week later the new government once again called to bring state-sponsored murder back to Israel.

For all these reasons and more, abolition of the death penalty remains a Jewish issue. If you agree, we pray you will join our ranks in chanting “L’chaim — to life!” and that you will actively advocate for the Golden State to end the human rights abomination that is capital punishment, once and for all.

Cantor Michael Zoosman
Cantor Michael Zoosman

Cantor Michael Zoosman is a Board Certified Chaplain and member of Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains. He is a former prison chaplain, co-founder of L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty and advisory board member of Death Penalty Action. He lives in Maryland.