Opinion: Alabama marking Tu B’Shevat with first-ever experimental gassing execution

By Cantor Michael J. Zoosman

The state of Alabama inadvertently has chosen a Jewish holiday for its first-ever experimental gassing to death. On Jan. 25 of this year, while many in the Jewish world mark Tu B’Shevat in the Hebrew calendar, Alabama will gas a human being to death as it experiments for the first time with nitrogen hypoxia as a form of execution.

There is little doubt that the Yellowhammer State’s choice of this day for public gassing was likely for administrative convenience only, and not out of spite for the Jewish world, despite the recent 400 percent increase in antisemitic incidents across the U.S. To be sure, Rep. Phillip Ensler, the only Jewish member of the Alabama House of Representatives, representing District 74 and executive director of the Jewish Federation of Central Alabama, issued a statement against this horror. Even within the Jewish community, Tu B’Shevat is a relatively minor holiday among the pantheon of annual festive days. Still, in the long rabbinic tradition of assigning mystical meaning to the holiday, a closer examination of the customs and beliefs surrounding Tu B’Shevat reveals just how horrific of a synchronicity it is that a new gas chamber — in any form — would be first instituted on this day of all days.

Tu B’Shevat (literally, the “15th of Shevat,” the Hebrew month), is also known as the New Year for the Trees, which the rabbis used in ancient times for calculating the age of trees for Biblically-mandated tithing of the first-fruits. Since the late 19th century, a custom has developed of honoring this date and custom by planting trees in Israel, a practice that continues to this day. Building upon this tradition, Tu B’Shevat in recent decades has come to be known as Israeli Arbor Day, and treated as a  Jewish “Earth Day.” Ecological organizations in Israel and the diaspora have beautifully adopted the holiday to further many meaningful environmental-awareness programs. And yet, while they so honor the oxygen-creating power of these Atzei Hayyim (Trees of Life), Alabama will be spending the same day doing all it can to remove that very same oxygen, replacing it with nitrogen gas in order to snuff out a human life.

To further this dark counterpoint, Jews in recent years have seen fit to connect the midwinter Tu B’Shevat holiday to other religious festivals. In the Hasidic community, some Jews pickle or candy the etrog (citron) from the fall holiday of Sukkot and eat it on Tu B’Shevat. While Jewish tradition has seen fit to link these holidays by theme, American jurisdictions have unintentionally desecrated these holy days by holding executions on them.

In the past three years alone, federal and state governments have set executions on the full gamut of Jewish festival and commemorative days: from Purim to Passover, from Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) to Kristallnacht, from Rosh HaShanah to Yom Kippur, and from Sukkot to Chanukah. Though the choice of these dates for execution likely were coincidental, these horrific synchronicities — like Texas choosing World Day Against the Death Penalty to kill our Jewish pen pal Jedidiah Murphy just after Sukkot last year — have served as a reminder to the Jewish community that it must pay attention to what is taking place and do all it can to ensure that the killings end.

There are yet darker parallels to consider in this Tu B’Shevat gassing. To further the theme of Tu B’Shevat marking the revival of nature, many of Israel’s major institutions have chosen this day for their inauguration. As such, the cornerstone-laying of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem took place on Tu B’Shevat in 1918, the Technion in 1925, and the Knesset in 1949. Few might have imagined that an American gassing “inauguration” would also be slated for this day.

Relatedly, there is a popular custom of eating new fruits for the first time on Tu B’Shevat and reciting the appropriate Shehecheyanu prayer over this new experience. The words of this prayer will indeed ring hollow this year with the knowledge that a new system of killing also shall “bear fruit” on this day of new beginnings…

Finally, a word about tears. Many children — including my own — engage in the custom of planting parsley on Tu B’Shevat so that this plant will be ready for use as karpas on the seder plate for Passover, which occurs in two months. This karpas is famously dipped in saltwater and consumed at the Seder so that Jews might literally taste the tears that Hebrew slaves shed in Egypt. The planting of these “seeds of tears” on this Tu B’Shevat could not be more apt.

Indeed, many Jewish tears should be shed over this day’s slated execution experiment. Beyond the inherent human rights violation that is set to take place, this Tu B’Shevat gassing also could very well open a Pandora’s box of similar experiments elsewhere across America. Many states, such as Nebraska, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Mississippi to name a few — as well as possible future federal government administrations — are eagerly waiting in the wings to observe the lethal results in the hope that they, too, will be able to repeat the same process for their condemned souls. To prevent this waterfall of tears from coming to fruition, the nearly 3,100 members of the international group “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty” already have joined in the resounding chorus of international condemnation over this abject abomination, and vociferously demanded that “Jews Must Speak Out Against Alabama’s Planned Nitrogen-Gassing Executions.”

Not only will Alabama be resurrecting the unmistakable Nazi legacy of gassing human beings to death on a Jewish holiday, but the day it has elected to do so also falls just ahead of International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27. Alabama has a morbid history of seeming to mark this solemn occasion, as well, with state killings. Just two years ago, it commemorated this hallowed memorial day by putting to death Matthew Reeves, a human being with documented severe cognitive impairment. On that occasion, Alabama used lethal injection, another direct Nazi legacy, first implemented in this world by the Third Reich as part of its infamous Aktion T4 protocol used to kill other such cognitively impaired individuals deemed “unworthy of life.” That protocol was brought to fruition by Dr. Karl Brandt, personal physician of Adolf Hitler, who personally signed off on it. Whether it is via lethal injection, Alabama’s nitrogen hypoxia, or gas chambers in other states — such as Arizona, which uses the gas Zyklon B (as used in Auschwitz) to kill its prisoners — all methods of state-sponsored murder of individuals against their will continues this Nazi legacy.

It is precisely to put an end to this cycle of violence that L’chaim’s thousands of members carry the torch of Holocaust survivor and staunch death penalty abolitionist Elie Wiesel. Of capital punishment, Wiesel famously stated, “Death should never be the answer in a civilized society.” He added in an interview, in 1988: “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.”

Many of the members of “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty,” including this author, are direct descendants of Holocaust victims and know better than most that capital punishment is not the same as that incomparable horror. And yet, like Wiesel, for many of us the shadow of the Holocaust is inextricably linked to a firm rejection of the death penalty in all cases, even for the Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue shooter. Indeed, it is not by coincidence that the very same Tree of Life symbol for which that targeted Pittsburgh congregation was named forms the core of L’chaim’s logo.

As Alabama inadvertently plans to add Tu B’Shevat to the grotesque Jewish holiday execution list, one final teaching associated with this festive day feels appropriate. Centuries ago, Jewish mystics called kabbalists assigned spiritual significance to Tu B’Shevat beyond its agricultural significance. Students of the renowned kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572) utilized this sacred day to highlight the Jewish mystical understanding that all human beings carry within a spark of the Divine Presence. This phenomenon, they taught, was reflected in how certain kinds of tree-grown fruits or nuts hide within them seeds of new potential life. Kabbalists ate certain fruits as a symbolic way of releasing these divine sparks. Today, Jews across the world remember this inspiring teaching by conducting a Tu B’Shevat Seder, replete with such fruits.

As Jews engage in this spiritual culinary tradition this year, may they remember that Alabama will be extinguishing the Divine spark of one such human being on the very same day that they partake of these seeds of life. May this epiphany compel Jewish leaders and communities to recognize that 21st-century Judaism Should Reject the Death Penalty. May this knowledge motivate all who read these words, Jewish and gentile, to join all of civilized humanity in signing the petition to “Say NO to the gas chamber.” And may such collective action help further unite the peoples of the world behind a chant to which all  humanity should give heed; namely, “L’chaim — to Life!”

Cantor Michael J. Zoosman, MSM, is a board certified chaplain, co-founder of “L’chaim: Jews Against the Death Penalty”  and advisory council member for Death Penalty Action.