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“Never Again”: Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooter Sentenced to Die. Jews Against the Death Penalty Respond

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A federal jury has sentenced to death the gunman who killed 11 worshipers at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue in the deadliest act of antisemitism in U.S. history. Robert Bowers was found guilty of federal hate crimes for the 2018 massacre. This is the first time federal prosecutors have successfully sought the death penalty under the Biden administration, which has imposed a moratorium on executions. We are joined by Cantor Michael Zoosman, co-founder of L’Chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty. “For 'never again' to have any meaning, it must also mean never again to state-sponsored murder of defenseless prisoners who are otherwise no longer a threat, safely behind bars,” says Zoosman. “This is a lesson that 21st century Judaism should share with the world.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The man who carried out the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history has been sentenced to death by a federal jury. On Wednesday, jurors unanimously sentenced Robert Bowers to death for killing 11 worshipers at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue. Bowers was found guilty of federal hate crimes for the 2018 massacre.

The worshipers had gathered on a Saturday morning for Shabbat services when Bowers entered the synagogue armed with an AR-15 and three handguns. He yelled, “All Jews must die!” as he opened fire. When he was finally taken into custody 20 minutes later, he reportedly told a SWAT team officer he, quote, “wanted all Jews to die.”

Before the attack, Bowers posted a link on social media to the website of HIAS, a Jewish nonprofit that was planning a Shabbat ceremony for refugees across the country. He wrote, quote, “Why hello there HIAS! You like to bring in hostile invaders to dwell among us?” Then, hours before his attack on the Tree of Life synagogue, he posted, quote, ”HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in,” he said.

This death penalty sentence for Bowers is the first for federal prosecutors in the Biden administration, which has imposed a moratorium on executions. This is U.S. Attorney Eric Olshan.

ERIC OLSHAN: The evidence in this trial proved that the defendant acted because of white supremacist, antisemitic and bigoted views that, unfortunately, are not original or unique to him. Sadly, they are too common. Our Constitution protects a person’s right to hold repugnant beliefs, but our Constitution also protects every person’s right to practice his or her faith. And when people who espouse white supremacist, antisemitic and bigoted views pick up weapons and use them to kill, or to try to kill, people because of their faith, our office and our partners in law enforcement will hold them accountable to the fullest extent of the law each and every time.

AMY GOODMAN: Today, the families of victims in the Pittsburgh synagogue mass shooting are sharing their impact statements before Bowers is formally sentenced to death. On Wednesday, victims’ family members and survivors of the shooting responded to the jury’s decision.

HOWARD FIENBERG: And for the final verdict in this case, I feel relief. And the jury sat through months of horror and delivered justice to my mom and everyone that was killed and everyone injured and everyone beyond.

LEIGH STEIN: Finally, justice has been served. And even though nothing will bring my dad back, I feel like a weight has been lifted, and I can breathe a sigh of relief.

MARTIN GAYNOR: This trial is important in enforcing the law of the land. It is also important in sending a signal, in the strongest possible terms, that antisemitism and hate have no place in our hearts, no place in our communities, no place in our country, and will not be tolerated.

AMY GOODMAN: Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, who helped hide worshipers during the gunman’s rampage, wrote an op-ed in The Forward headlined “Killing the shooter won’t bring my slain congregants back.” The rabbi writes, quote, “Vengeance has become a motivating factor for many Jews who hoped the jury would sentence the murderer to death. But despite the horrific nature of his crimes, I do not believe that doing so would bring either justice or peace,” the rabbi wrote.

Robert Bowers would have been sentenced to life in prison without parole if the jury’s decision was not unanimous. In death penalty trials, potential jurors must confirm to prosecutors that they’re willing to impose the death penalty as part of a jury selection process called “death qualification.”

For more, we’re joined by Cantor Michael Zoosman, a former prison chaplain and co-founder of L’Chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty.

Cantor, welcome to Democracy Now! It’s so important to have you with us today. If you could start off by responding to what we heard in the televised media yesterday, family member after family member expressing their grief, but also their relief at the unanimous decision to sentence Bowers, the murderer, to death?

CANTOR MICHAEL ZOOSMAN: Thank you. Thank you for having me on. And I’m sorry it’s in these circumstances.

First and foremost, let it be known that there is no judgment. I work as a hospital chaplain and a hospice chaplain with people who are dying and their family members. And as I tell the family members, they can and should feel however they feel as they process the grief. Far be it for me to ever know the pain that they must be going through. No one should ever experience that pain. And if it were me experiencing that pain, I indeed might be before you advocating for a death penalty.

As it is, I am not. I am part of our society. And I am of the belief, as are the thousands of members of our group, L’Chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty, that it is the law that is wrong. Indeed, a heinous crime, the likes of which was committed in Pittsburgh, should be punished to the full extent of the law. But the law is wrong. We know that the death penalty condemns the society that enacts it infinitely more than any human being that it condemns to death. And I know that from personal experience and from the experience of my people.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Could you elaborate, Cantor, on what you mean by that, that you know that from your personal experience and also the experience of your people?

CANTOR MICHAEL ZOOSMAN: Certainly. Well, it was something that I learned throughout my life, but the main experience was my experience as a prison chaplain, working in Canada as a prison chaplain, where the death penalty was not on the books, and meeting and getting to know individuals who would have qualified for the death penalty in other states in the United States, and perhaps federally, and seeing how they changed. Experiencing that began to change my heart from someone who, growing up, believed in the death penalty to thinking again about it. And then, when I came to learn more about it and to see how hard the Jewish tradition made it to enact the death penalty and to see how horrifically applied it is in a racist and fundamentally unjust manner, I began to see how wrong it was. But it wasn’t until I started corresponding with people regularly, over letter and nowadays over email daily, with people in line for execution, that I witnessed firsthand the psychological torture that’s inherent in any death penalty. Physical torture often, yes, I’ve had many experiences with penpals who have undergone that, but psychological torture always, including the extent of sane — otherwise sane individuals who have tried to kill themselves as the days and weeks counted down. It is something that no society should ever be a part of. That’s my personal experience.

I can also speak to it from the experience of my people, as I see it. When it comes to that, I look to Elie Wiesel, the famous Holocaust survivor and death penalty abolitionist, who said the — he said, famously, that death should be never the answer in a civilized society. And individuals like him — Martin Buber, Gershom Scholem, Jewish scholars — knew that even someone like Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi perpetrator, should not have been executed by Israel. Martin Buber, famously, called it the “great mistake.”

When I consider the method that Robert Bowers will now be put to death, it’s even more clear-cut. Lethal injection was first implemented in our world by the Nazis as part of Aktion T4. That is the protocol used to kill people deemed unworthy of life. The protocol was devised by Dr. Karl Brandt, the personal physician of Adolf Hitler. Every use of lethal injection carries on that Nazi legacy. The members of L’Chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty know this viscerally.

Many of us, like myself, are direct scions of Holocaust survivors. We know — we know — that the death penalty is not the same as the unparalleled conflagration that was the Shoah. However, we also know that for “never again” to have any meaning, it must also mean never again to state-sponsored murder of defenseless prisoners who are otherwise no longer a threat, safely behind bars. This is a lesson that 21st century Judaism should share with the world.

Traditional Judaism does have a place for the death penalty, albeit with prodigious safeguards to prevent anyone who is innocent from being executed. And they almost made it impossible to carry out an execution. Famously, they say that once in 70 years, if a court were to put somebody to death, that would be a hanging court. There is then a retort saying, “But what about increasing the number of murderers in Israel, if you were to do that?” implying the notion of deterrence. We can forgive the ancient rabbis of blessed memory for not knowing that deterrence is a fallacy. It is disproven, time and again, by metastudies. And so there is no reason for this excessive violence, which carries on this Nazi legacy.

And let me add one more thing. In various states now, we are seeing gas chambers being erected. In one state, Arizona, Zyklon B is offered. Zyklon B was the gas used in Auschwitz. These are facts that I’m not making up. These are facts that are real. And we cannot forget the past. And that is why I say that the death penalty condemns the society that enacts it infinitely more than any individual that it condemns to death.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Cantor Zoosman, you mentioned the case, of course, of Adolf Eichmann, and you said that Martin Buber, a very famous Jewish philosopher, condemned the decision by Israel to execute him, calling it a “great mistake.” Eichmann, of course, during the trial, attempted to disavow his responsibility or minimally to diminish the role that he played in the Holocaust. So I want to ask you about the intention and the response of the perpetrator in attacks of this kind, what happened at the Tree of Life, because what people have pointed out, what’s shocking, is that Bowers, rather than express any guilt at all, on the contrary, said that he should have been better prepared, had more ammunition, so he could kill more Jews, etc. So, to what extent should that be taken into account, if at all?

CANTOR MICHAEL ZOOSMAN: I think it should absolutely be taken into account, again, to the fullest extent of the law, to reflect the absolutely heinous and horrific nature of it. The problem, again, is not that we did not punish him to the full extent of the law; the problem is that the law is wrong in offering this inhumane punishment, which 70% of nations in the world — 70% — have recognized as a violation of human rights, including Ghana, the country of Ghana, which just this past week abolished the death penalty while this trial was going on. And while this trial — while this verdict came out, this week in the United States, we have two executions, one of a mentally ill man on Monday — on Tuesday, and another today of a, quote-unquote, “volunteer” for state-assisted suicide in Florida, a prisoner who has dropped all his appeals.

So, when you open that door to death, that is opening Pandora’s box to something that we know is a violation of the highest order of human rights. And it opens the door to proposals that we see in the states here for the death penalty now for abortion, and countries like Uganda, that are now — have the, quote-unquote, “kill the gays” law, the death penalty for homosexual acts. And it goes on and on. Florida, we see this Pandora’s box opening now for the death penalty for crimes that don’t involve killing, and for the death penalty when there’s a nonunanimous jury. So, what we’re seeing is, again and again, how when that door is left open, horrors emanate from it.

AMY GOODMAN: Cantor Zoosman, I wanted to go to Democratic Congressmember Jamie Raskin, who shared his response to the death sentence given to Bowers in an interview with the BBC.

REP. JAMIE RASKIN: I have opposed the death penalty for a long time, and I led the fight in Maryland to abolish the death penalty. You know, I think that the punishment of death is certainly way too good for the mass murderer, this racist antisemite who assassinated worshipers at the Tree of Life synagogue. And, you know, he should be forced to endure his days with the rigors of hard time in prison, and he should be an example to others. You know, a lot of these people who engage in these massacres at churches, in supermarkets, Walmarts, what have you, turn the gun on themselves and kill themselves. They don’t want to face a guilty verdict and life in prison.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you, Cantor Zoosman. People may not be aware that in death penalty cases, something we pointed out at the beginning, the prospective jurors have to be for the death penalty, even if in the end they don’t give the death penalty to the person. That often excludes Blacks, Jews and Catholics, who are more often than not against the death penalty, so then they won’t serve on juries in a case that doesn’t even necessarily go for the death penalty. And it also shows that those jurors would be less likely to convict, those that would be kept off the jury. Your thoughts on that?

CANTOR MICHAEL ZOOSMAN: I think that’s absolutely spot-on. I saw a comment just recently that somebody made, an astute comment, that, hypothetically, if all the members of the jury were Jewish, it’s highly unlikely that we would see this penalty of death. And that would reflect the cross-section of the Jewish community when it comes to views on the death penalty.

Let it be known that, indeed, there are many in the Jewish community, as you’ve mentioned before, who do support the death penalty. There’s a famous quip that “two Jews, three opinions,” and we’re allowed to agree to disagree. In the Talmud, there’s a famous phrase teiku, which comes from the Aramaic teikum, which means “let it stand.” It’s OK, we will agree for the sake of having to disagree on this issue. And that’s fine. Let there begin a group that says Jews for the Death Penalty, L’Mavet, which means “to death.” Ours is L’Chaim, “to life,” Jews Against the Death Penalty. And so, that would, to me, say that if there were jurors who were selected, you would at least get at least one, if not many more, who would have recognized that the death penalty is an abomination, and would not have voted for it for Robert Bowers.

AMY GOODMAN: Cantor Michael Zoosman, we want to thank you so much for being with us, former prison chaplain and co-founder of L’Chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty.

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