(JTA) — Jedidiah Murphy, the Jewish man on death row in Texas whose fight to avoid the death penalty gained support from prominent Jewish activists, has been executed.
Murphy, 48, was sentenced to death for the fatal 2000 shooting of 80-year-old Bertie Lee Cunningham in Dallas County during a carjacking. “To the family of the victim I want to say I sincerely apologize for all I did. I hope this brings you closure,” Murphy said in his final statement, before reciting a psalm praising God.
The execution, by lethal injection, came late on Tuesday after a series of last-minute maneuvers aimed at sparing Murphy.
He had been granted a stay of execution by a federal district court on Friday, but the Attorney General’s Office filed an appeal to vacate the stay. On Tuesday, his attorneys made another request for a stay, arguing that the drugs he was set to be injected with were damaged by smoke and extreme heat during a recent fire at a state prison, but that petition was denied. A last-minute petition to the U.S. Supreme Court was denied.
“I wish I could say it was a shock,” Cantor Michael Zoosman, a former prison chaplain who runs L’Chaim, a Jewish anti-death penalty group, said during an vigil held on Zoom during the last hours of Murphy’s legal fight and then through his execution, just minutes before the expiration of his death warrant. The execution took place on World Day Against the Death Penalty, when advocates press their case against capital punishment.
During the vigil, Zoosman sang “Oseh Shalom” and Psalm 23 from his sukkah and relayed that Murphy, whom he said had become a dear friend and pen pal, had in his final communication expressed sadness about Hamas’ attack on Israel.
“May there be peace, may we see a day with no more killing,” Zoosman said. “Amen.”
Murphy’s case had mobilized Jewish opponents of the death penalty, including Zoosman; Alan Dershowitz, the emeritus Harvard law professor and political commentator; and Rabbi Dovid Goldstein, a Chabad rabbi in Houston who has advocated for Murphy for years.
On Monday, Goldstein, who had guided Murphy in a bar mitzvah ceremony in 2016, accompanied Murphy as he prayed with tefillin for last time.
As a child, Murphy was abused by his birth father and adoptive father, and abandoned his birth mother, who was Jewish, according to the Forward. In the year before committing the murder, Murphy had sought mental health care and was diagnosed with mental dissociative identity disorder, major depression and alcohol dependency, the Texas Observer reported. While he has confessed to the crime, he was high on cocaine and says he does not remember it.
“Three years ago I cried out to Hashem and submitted to his authority and my mind was completely restored,” Murphy wrote in an email from prison to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency last month. “That is a miracle and so do I have faith? Absolutely, because I’ve beaten the odds time and again and I know it is for a reason I don’t fully understand. Being Jewish brought a sense of community and I’ve been blessed with Rabbis that pour into someone that did not deserve it.”
In a message Murphy sent to Zoosman earlier this week, Murphy said the uncertainty of his fate was difficult to handle, but was even more challenging for his family.
“We’ve seen it many times where we’re in a place like this, the day before, there’s a stay in place and you still have the execution carried out,” Zoosman told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
Because of that uncertainty, last week, Zoosman sent Murphy a copy of the viddui, a traditional Jewish confessional prayer recited before death.
“I’ve done that many times for people as a hospice and hospital chaplain,” Zoosman explained. “But it also applies here, if in fact he is going to be put to death, then this is the prayer that our tradition offers for someone who’s about to face death.”
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Some Jewish musicians are asking Jewish critics of Israel to stop singing their songs at protests
(JTA) — When the Jewish group IfNotNow asked educator and musician Shoshana Jedwab whether it could include her song “Where You Go” in its songbook, Jedwab offered a cautious yes.
The year was 2018, and the song, which Jedwab had officially released on the first anniversary of then-President Donald Trump’s travel ban on Muslim-majority countries, had taken off at progressive protests.
The lyrics were easily adaptable to the most pressing issues of the moment, including immigration, women’s rights and Indigenous rights — all issues that IfNotNow, which had been founded in 2014 to press American Jews to more harshly criticize Israel, was widening its scope to tackle. Jedwab knew that IfNotNow was further to the left on Israel issues than she was, but she decided to grant permission nonetheless.
“I thought, ‘I need to open up, I need to be braver, I need to reach out here and give my blessing to people who put energy into the anti-occupation movement,” she said. “I had my father ringing in my ears, a Holocaust survivor and an ex-Palmachnik who looked at the occupation in the West Bank and said this is a shame, this is a shanda, we cannot be occupiers. So that’s why I did it.”
Five years later, Jedwab has changed her mind. She recently asked IfNotNow to remove “Where You Go” from its literature. The trigger for that reversal, she said, was the group’s claim that Israel is committing a “genocide” in its war against Hamas in Gaza. Some protests trumpeting that accusation have also featured her song.
“I gave them permission. I trusted them,” she told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “It breaks my heart thinking that this organization that thinks it’s doing good is putting Jews in danger by saying a falsehood, an incredibly dangerous falsehood.”
Jedwab isn’t the only Jewish musician to demand that IfNotNow stop using their songs in the wake of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel that killed 1,400 people, took hundreds hostage and began the current war.
Rabbi Menachem Creditor declared on social media over the weekend that he disavows the group’s use of his song “Olam Chesed Yibaneh,” citing its genocide accusation and its alignment with Jewish Voice for Peace, an explicitly anti-Zionist group.
“I’ve been struggling for a long time with the use of my song by IfNotNow and wanted to give them every chance to express themselves with different Jewish eyes,” Creditor told JTA. “But again and again, they have effectively unmoored themselves from our people and are acting in ways that will be destructive to the Jewish people and to the State of Israel.”
In asking IfNotNow to stop using their work, the musicians are taking a page from the likes of Sting, Bruce Springsteen and R.E.M., all of which have barred politicians from playing their songs at rallies.
The Jewish musicians are also opening a window into a dramatic reordering within the progressive Jewish left since Oct. 7, as some progressive Jews have realized that despite sharing an outlook with the members of far-left Jewish groups on many social issues, their differences of opinion on Israel now feel like an uncrossable gap.
IfNotNow represents a notable laboratory for those tensions because of its posture at the intersection of Jewish expression and progressive politics. The group was founded during the last major war in Gaza by young Jews who said they were dissatisfied with what they had learned about Israel at their Jewish day schools and summer camps. Its activities have long drawn on and featured Jewish ritual and objects.
Like Jedwab, Creditor, now the rabbi in residence at UJA-Federation of New York, had expressed admiration about IfNotNow’s use of his work in the past, even if he did not endorse its outlook on Israel. In 2016, he said on Facebook that he was inspired by the group as it protested against Trump’s appointment of Steve Bannon, previously the chair of the hardline right-wing news site Breitbart, as chief strategist.
“That their live streamed marching on the Republican party offices in Boston had them singing my ‘Olam Chesed Yibaneh’ is, perhaps, most humbling of all,” he wrote at the time. The song’s title means “The World Is Built on Kindness” and is drawn from Psalm 89.
In addition to “Olam Chesed Yibaneh” and “Where You Go,” IfNotNow also recites the Mourner’s Kaddish prayer and sings traditional Jewish songs such as “Lo Yisa Goy,” based on a Biblical passage with an antiwar message, at its rallies. Other actions have featured Jewish prayer shawls or the shofar.
“Turning to ritual and song is one of the most basic, ancient things that Jews do,” said Ilana Lerman, who helped compile the IfNotNow songbook that features Jedwab’s song. “This is a very ancient and brilliant technology: We use song and ritual to call people, to mourn, to praise, to act, to join in solidarity, to learn, to mark time. These are all things that we are going to want to do as a movement together.”
IfNotNow told Jedwab that it would remove her song from its literature in the future, said the songwriter, who also teaches Jewish studies at the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York City. But she said friends have let her know that “Where You Go” is still being sung at the group’s rallies. And the group’s national spokesperson, Eva Borgwardt, declined on Sunday to answer questions about whether it plans to curb the singing of “Olam Chesed Yibaneh,” which Creditor wrote after 9/11.
“We want to build a world of love and peace, where no Palestinians or Israelis need to fear for their lives. We cannot build a world of love through more bombing and death,” Borgwardt said in a statement.
“We will continue to call for ceasefire, the release of all hostages, deescalation, and addressing the root causes that brought us here, and we are proud to draw on the rich Jewish tradition that gave us the words of Psalm 89:3,” she added.
Lerman said on Tuesday that her understanding was that the group would in fact stop using Jedwab’s and Creditor’s songs in its national actions. But she said it could take some time for the songs to disappear completely — because they have been such mainstays of IfNotNow’s activism up to this point, and it might take some time for local chapters to get the message.
“We’re definitely going to follow their request,” she said. “We won’t sing their music, and we’re really sad about it, because the messages from their music really come from the part of Judaism that is about love and not about vengeance.”
Creditor said he had gotten offers of pro-bono legal assistance to press IfNotNow to carry out his request, but he isn’t interested.
“I think that gives too much oxygen where I just simply want them to stop,” he said. “If they have spiritual integrity, they’ll respect my wishes.”
Some critics of IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace have gone much further, announcing in recent weeks that they no longer consider the groups’ members to be Jewish. Avi Mayer, the editor of the Jerusalem Post, said as much in a column last week, quoting a Oct. 27 thread on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, by Dan Elbaum, the North American head of the Jewish Agency for Israel.
Saying that he was “talking about American Jews who call Israelis Nazis and accuse them of acts of genocide — knowing full well and even relishing the hurtfulness of those terms,” Elbaum specifically called out members of IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace.
“I have reached a sad conclusion. As much as I would not like to give up on a single Jew, I have given up on them. For me, they are deserving of “cherem” (formal exclusion from the Jewish people),” Elbaum wrote, adding, “Unlike Hamas who would have joyously murdered them on October 7, I do not consider them Jews.”
Creditor shared Elbaum’s thread, writing, “I grieve as I add my amen to this sad but necessary conclusion.” But he told JTA that he would not actually go as far as Elbaum or Mayer.
“I’ll make a delineation between IfNotNow and the individuals who are caught up in it,” he said. “I’m not willing to say they’re not Jewish. But what they are doing is anti-Jewish.”
That kind of thinking is an “an unfortunate pattern” that has emerged in this moment of political realignment, said Rabbi Miriam Grossman of Brooklyn’s Kolot Chayeinu synagogue, who has participated in IfNotNow rallies.
“Jewish leaders, sometimes rabbis and sometimes organizations, are saying that various elements of Jewish life are no longer usable or fair game anymore in the hands of Jewish folks who are organizing and calling for ceasefire,” she said.
“As a rabbi, I just want to publicly disagree with that,” Grossman said, adding about IfNotNow protesters, “They’re so clear that they’re proud of their Judaism. They want to show up in Jewish community and to fight for life together. … And so it just makes me sad when people are looking at that and saying that it’s not Jewish.”
Rallies in support of Israel and its response to Oct. 7 have also featured Jewish songs — most frequently “Am Yisrael Chai,” written by Shlomo Carlebach in 1965 for the movement to free Soviet Jewry. (Creditor is married to Carlebach’s daughter Neshama, herself a Jewish songwriter who has performed “Olam Chesed Yibaneh” in venues as varied as Auschwitz, Japan and a memorial concert for her father.)
Both Creditor and Jedwab said they recognized they could not put their songs back in the bottle.
“I’m not asking people not to sing it. I believe that people’s hearts are basically good,” Jedwab said about “Where You Go.” “But I cannot condone that organization using my song officially.”
“It’s hard to control the use of your art when it’s already been created,” Creditor said. “But it hurts me the worst when I see my song weaponized against my own family’s heart.”
And Lerman said that even as “Olam Chesed Yibaneh” and “Where You Go” recede, other songs will fill their place.
At each protest, she said, some IfNotNow members are deputized as song leaders — including 40 at the recent protest at the U.S. Capitol where many demonstrators were arrested. Their goal, she said, is to keep the singing going for as long as the rally lasts.
“We Rise,” a newer song by the musician Batya Levine, has been a feature of Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow rallies, and was sung in the rotunda of the Capitol. (Levine, who has taught the song at JVP events, did not respond to a JTA request for comment.) And “Ceasefire Now,” a two-word song by Sol Weiss, has also gained traction over the last month.
“New music is born inside of moments that call for new music,” Lerman said.
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Jewish lawmaker Vernikov holds seat, Kagan loses in closely watched NYC council elections
(New York Jewish Week) — One Jewish Republican lost his New York City Council seat and another retained hers in a pair of contested elections on Tuesday.
Republican Ari Kagan lost his seat to Democrat Justin Brannan in Brooklyn’s 47th district, with most of the votes counted, and Republican Inna Vernikov held a commanding lead over challenger Amber Adler, a Democrat, in the 48th district, with 85% of the votes counted. Both Brannan and Vernikov declared victory by Wednesday morning.
Brannan and Kagan were both city council members going into the closely watched race for the newly formed 47th district, which includes Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge, Coney Island and parts of Bath Beach. The majority of voters in the district identify as Democrats.
Kagan, an honoree in the New York Jewish Week’s “36 to Watch” list in 2022, switched from the Democratic to the Republican party last year, saying the Democrats had moved too far left. Brannan’s ties with the Democratic party leadership frayed shortly before the race due to his alleged involvement in a harassment case, allegations he denies.
Brannan and Kagan sparred over the war between Israel and Gaza during the campaign, with Kagan accusing Brannan of taking a soft stance toward hardline pro-Palestinian protesters in the district. Brannan lashed Kagan for the comments, saying he supported both Israel’s right to exist and Palestinian aspirations for a state. The district has significant populations of both Jews and Palestinians.
Kagan accused Brannan of “radioactive cowardly silence” following “pro-Hamas chants, anti-American and anti-Semitic signs in his own backyard.”
“He’s trying to use the Israel-Hamas war to score political points,” Brannan said. “He has no shame.”
Brannan had the backing of Jewish U.S. Rep. Daniel Goldman, who said he had campaigned for the candidate the day before the race.
Kagan, who was born in Belarus, and Vernikov, originally from today’s Ukraine, are staunch supporters of Israel and are tied to southern Brooklyn’s Russian-speaking Jewish community.
Vernikov’s 48th district covers Brooklyn’s Homecrest, Sheepshead Bay, Brighton Beach and Manhattan Beach neighborhoods. Vernikov, elected in 2022, serves as the Republican party minority whip in the council. Independent candidate Igor Kazatsker also ran for the district, falling well short of Vernikov and Adler. Democrat Adler is also Jewish, a fact she highlighted shortly before the race with a visit to the Chabad rebbe’s gravesite in Queens.
Vernikov was arraigned just days before the election for illegally bringing a pistol to a pro-Palestinian protest last month. Vernikov has a permit for the weapon, but under New York law, a demonstration is considered a “sensitive location” where firearms are prohibited.
All 51 seats in the City Council were up for election on Tuesday, although some candidates ran unopposed. Eric Dinowitz, the chair of the Jewish Caucus, is set to hold his seat in the 11th district, and Kalman Yeger is set to defeat Heshy Tischler in the 44th district in a race pitting two well-known Orthodox Jews against each other.
Voters were focused on migrants and crime more than other issues, but the Middle East war was also a factor, according to a Siena College poll released late last month.
A majority of voters — 57% — favored more aid to Israel, while 32% were opposed. Jewish voters favored more aid to Israel by a wide margin of 81% in favor and 8% opposed.
Half of New Yorkers, including a majority of Democrats and Independents, were concerned that Israel’s counter-offensive will harm Palestinian civilians, while about one-third said Israel had to make sure another Hamas attack needed to never happen again, regardless of casualties, Siena College pollster Steven Greenberg said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had a favorability rating of 27% and an unfavorability rating of 32%, with Republicans holding a higher opinion, and Democrats and Jews more opposed, Greenberg said.
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‘From the river to the sea’: The slogan that led to Rashida Tlaib’s censure, explained
(JTA) — In a video posted to social media on Sunday, Rep. Rashida Tlaib leveled a litany of harsh accusations at President Joe Biden — from saying he betrayed his voters to blaming him for endorsing “genocide.”
But one six-word phrase in the video caught the ire of a growing chorus of critics and led to formal consequences in Congress: “From the river to the sea.”
The slogan generally appears as the first half of the chant “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” — referring to the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, which encompasses Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. It’s a phrase that Jewish watchdogs call antisemitic, that has caused at least one pro-Palestinian commentator to lose a job — and that Tlaib has walked back in the past.
On Monday night, the House of Representatives voted to censure Tlaib, in part because of the phrase. A group of Tlaib’s fellow Democratic Congress members said it’s a “rallying cry for the destruction of the State of Israel and genocide of the Jewish people.”
In response to the backlash, Tlaib posted that the slogan is “an aspirational call for freedom, human rights, and peaceful coexistence, not death, destruction, or hate.” Tlaib supports the establishment of a single, binational Palestinian-Jewish state in place of what is now Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.
Here’s a rundown of the controversy over “From the river to the sea,” why Jewish groups say it’s antisemitic and how it’s being used surrounding the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas.
The phrase is a mainstay of Palestinian protests — and appears in Hamas documents.
The Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea form the eastern and western boundaries, respectively, of what was the British Mandate of Palestine before 1948. It is also the heart of the biblical Land of Israel (though the ancient Jewish kingdom there extended further).
In 1947, the United Nations partitioned the land into separate Jewish and Arab states, a decision Jewish leaders accepted and Palestinian and broader Arab leadership rejected, claiming the entire territory. Right-wing Israeli political movements have likewise claimed the entirety of the territory for Israel.
Israel held control over the entire territory from the 1967 Six-Day War until its withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 — though it never annexed the West Bank and, before 2014, held successive rounds of negotiations with Palestinian leaders over a potential withdrawal.
Since the 1960s, “From the river to the sea” has been used by Palestinian nationalist movements such as the Palestine Liberation Organization and, later, Hamas.
Hamas’ 2017 charter states that in principle, it “rejects any alternative to the full and complete liberation of Palestine, from the river to the sea.” In a 2012 speech, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal said, “Palestine is ours from the river to the sea and from the south to the north. There will be no concession on any inch of the land.”
Israel and Jewish groups view it as a call for Israel’s destruction.
Because the whole slogan calls for a Palestine that is “free” across all of the territory that now encompasses Israel, Israelis and their supporters in Congress and beyond view it as a call for Israel’s destruction. In an entry calling the phrase antisemitic, the Anti-Defamation League says the phrase “would mean the dismantling of the Jewish state. It is an antisemitic charge denying the Jewish right to self-determination, including through the removal of Jews from their ancestral homeland.”
The American Jewish Committee likewise says the phrase denotes “erasing the State of Israel and its people. It is also a rallying cry for terrorist groups and their sympathizers.”
Ahead of Monday’s censure vote, Democratic Reps. Brad Schneider, Ritchie Torres and Norma Torres circulated a statement signed by 70 Democratic lawmakers stating, “We reject the use of the phrase from the river to the Sea, a phrase used by many, including Hamas, as a rallying cry for the destruction of the state of Israel and genocide of the Jewish people.”
Monday’s censure resolution, which was Republican-led but garnered 23 Democratic votes, said the phrase is “a genocidal call to violence to destroy the state of Israel and its people.”
The phrase has drawn censure abroad, as well. Late last month, Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer said the chanting of “From the river to the sea” would become a criminal offense in that country. Lawmakers in Britain and the Netherlands also said they believed using the phrase in protests should be illegal.
Israeli politicians have occasionally used the phrase as well.
Israeli politicians have also used the phrase to describe the entire area, although more rarely. In 2020, right-wing lawmaker Gideon Saar, an ally-turned-rival of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said, “Between the Jordan River and the sea there won’t be another independent state,” meaning a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
Religious Zionist politician Uri Ariel said in 2014, “Between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea there will be only one state, which is Israel.”
Netanyahu, who also opposes Palestinian statehood, has favored the phrase “west of the Jordan,” which refers to the same territory.
Pro-Palestinian activists who have used the phrase have faced consequences.
Tlaib is defending her use of the phrase now, but in the past, she appears to have recognized that it is problematic. In 2020, she shared a post on Twitter using the phrase but deleted it following backlash.
And in 2018, Marc Lamont Hill, a pro-Palestinian political commentator and professor at Temple University, was fired from a role at CNN after he used the “From the river” phrase in a speech at the United Nations. Hill subsequently apologized for using the phrase.
More recently, he has questioned the idea that the phrase calls for Israel’s destruction, pointing to its usage by some Israelis.
“You say “River to the Sea” is “universally” understood to mean the destruction of the Jewish State? On what basis do you make this claim? Did it signify destruction when it was the slogan of the Likud Party? Or when currently used by the Israeli Right? Or even liberal Zionists?” he wrote on X in September.
Rashida Tlaib is defending the phrase despite backlash.
In a reply to her initial post on Sunday, Tlaib wrote, “From the river to the sea is an aspirational call for freedom, human rights, and peaceful coexistence, not death, destruction, or hate. My work and advocacy is always centered in justice and dignity for all people no matter faith or ethnicity.”
And as she faced censure on Monday, Tlaib noted that she is the only Palestinian-American in Congress.
“[M]y perspective is needed here now more than ever,” she wrote on X. “I will not be silenced and I will not let anyone distort my words.”
In a speech to Congress on Monday, Tlaib did not use the phrase “From the river to the sea” and said her criticism focused on the Israeli government.
“My criticism has always been of the Israeli government and Netanyahu’s actions,” she said. “The idea that criticizing the government of israel is antisemitic sets a a very dangerous precedent.”
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