Passover, Justice & The Death Penalty

Abraham Bonowitz is Executive Director of Death Penalty Action.

Passover is another one of those Jewish holidays where we proclaim, “They tried to kill us, we prevailed, let’s eat!” Seriously, it’s great food — at least it is in MY mom’s house. I’m especially looking forward to it this year, since we can once again be together. Along with the food and fellowship, I’ve also come to look forward to discussions around social justice issues.

The essential duty of Passover is to tell the story of how the Jewish people came into slavery and then how they came out of it. But it has always also been about community and those in need. “All who are hungry, let them come and eat” are words that will be said at every Seder, everywhere. There are match-making services to find Seders for people in need. Over the years, my family hosted many people we had never met. Sadly this year, the number of guests is still one governed by the status of the pandemic, but I’m happy to say that mom has had her shots and one of my brothers and my nephews are coming to town. Maybe this year we need to say, “All who are vaccinated, let them come and eat!”

As I got older, we started using different Hagadot (plural of Hagada) the Passover story guide/prayer book. One version I like gets into comparisons and anecdotes related to the Holocaust, and as we read through the Hagada, our conversation would often shift into the relevant social justice issues of the day. The Passover experience weaves together many themes that run concurrent with the struggles of today. Slavery still exists in various forms. Refugees and the right to flee persecution or simply to seek a better life seems always to be an issue. The only differences are names, language, skin color, borders and regions, and the level of sincerity with which the party in power addresses the issue.

My day to day work is to abolish the death penalty. On April 19, 2000, I was getting out of a taxi from the airport and I saw mom come out onto the front porch, holding the local newspaper. In the national news section there was a huge photo of me being arrested the day before at the Governor’s mansion in Tennessee, protesting the execution of Robert Coe. That certainly led to interesting discussions at the Seder that night, as it did in 2004 when I brought with me to our Seder one of the now 185 exonerated survivors of wrongful death sentences in the United States.

In 2004, exonerated Florida death row survivor Juan Melendez, murder victim family member Bill Pelke and I were on a speaking tour across the country. Having a Catholic and a Baptist add to the conversation with their own very real stories of contemporary injustice made that Seder unforgettable for my family and our other guests. Another time we hosted my friend T. Kumar, a torture survivor and former prisoner of conscience from Sri Lanka, leading to similar memories. The Passover story resonated with each of these men, too.

This year, my Seder table might reflect a bit about the record-setting execution spree during the final months of the Trump Administration. The spree led Rep. Ayanna Pressley and Senator Richard Durbin to introduce the Federal Death Penalty Prohibition Act of 2021. Death Penalty Action is providing a Federal Abolitionist’s Tool Kit for anyone wishing to do something to help pass this legislation. Opportunities include:

Most people don’t get that deep at their Seders, and my family doesn’t do that every year. But in its essence, Passover is about justice. It’s about remembering what happened to us, and making sure that we do what we can to make sure such things don’t happen to others. Chag Sameach.

Abraham J. Bonowitz is co-director of and been a leading organizer of Jewish and other clergy leadership in successful campaigns to restrict and repeal the death penalty across the United States. Please click here to write your members of Congress in support of ending the federal and military death penalty.

This article was originally published by Faith in Public Life. It is updated each year to reflect current action opportunities.

Death Penalty Action provides high visibility resources, leadership and support in order to stop executions.

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