Jewish groups join effort to end federal death penalty
September 25, 2020
Washington, D.C. — More than 200 local, state and national organizations are calling on Congress to examine issues arising from the current spate of federal executions, and ultimately to abolish the federal death penalty. A growing number of Jewish organizations and clergy have joined the effort.
“These executions are set to take place during a time when Jews are focused on repentance, forgiveness, mercy and charity,” said Cantor Mike Zoosman, a member of the Board of Advisors of Death Penalty Action. “I am one of those who used to support capital punishment from a secular point of view, and of course, Judaism allows for the death penalty but the rabbis put so many restrictions in place that we can never have an execution under Jewish law. We wanted to create a space where Jews can learn more about the issue, and for those who are ready, to take action.”
Cantor Zoosman has developed a sermon that he has been sharing with Jewish congregations holding services over the internet. He draws upon his experience as a former prison chaplain and third-generation Holocaust survivor to share his personal journey from having a pro-death penalty stance to expressing a passionate spiritual voice for abolition. Zoosman is active with T’ruah, the rabbinic human rights organization which is one of the early signers on the open letter to Congress.
The new web page, deathpenaltyaction.org/jewish-action, features a video presentation by Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, President and founder of Uri L’Tzedek: Orthodox Social Action, and a founding member of the Board of Advisors of Death Penalty Action. In the nine-minute video he speaks of the value of pikuach nefesh, the commandment to not take a human life.
“What it means to be a responsible Jewish person is to reinterpret text. Not to be a fundamentalist,” said Yanklowitz, “but to continue to understand text in our new era.” The brief lecture goes beyond the many typical references to talk about the need for a spiritual revolution in the United States, where we can rebuild empathy for those less fortunate.
The web page features numerous resources which delve into the minutia of Jewish teaching on the issue of capital punishment.
The effort is coordinated by Abraham Bonowitz, a co-founder and director of Death Penalty Action. Bonowitz has been working to end executions since the time he changed his mind on the issue more than three decades ago. He has been a part of successful efforts to repeal capital punishment laws in numerous states.
“In the New Jersey, Illinois, Maryland, Delaware and other campaigns, I was the Jewish guy at the leadership table, so naturally I was tapped with organizing with the rabbis, particularly around Jewish legislators who were holding out. Those legislators who switched their votes were pivotal in particular in Illinois and Maryland. Jews have been at the forefront of successful state campaigns to end capital punishment across the country, and now we are doing it again at the federal level.”
The call to Congress was initiated by Death Penalty Action in the wake of the three federal executions in July. Organizations endorsing the call to Congress are listed here. The text of the letter to Congress makes the following requests:
Speak out against the upcoming federal executions on September 22 & 24, 2020;
Address pervasive and systemic racism in the criminal legal system by ending the federal death penalty;
Remove the power of the president to use executions for his own political purposes by passing H.R. 4052, legislation to end the federal death penalty and prohibit any further federal executions;
Investigate the Trump reelection campaign’s scripting of federal executions and address any ethics violations or violations of the law, if found;
Investigate the conduct of the Attorney General, the Department of Justice and the Bureau of Prisons in light of troubling facts raising questions about the legality and constitutionality of the executions conducted on July 14 and 16, 2020;
Close the legal loophole that allowed the federal government to override the Navajo Nation’s stated desire that Lezmond Mitchell not face execution.
The organizations will continue to build momentum in advance of Congress’s scheduled return to Washington in September.