The Jewish Presidential Candidate You Don’t Know
You won’t see her in the debates, but the Green Party’s Jill Stein has a lot to say.
Can you tell me about your Jewish upbringing?
I was brought up in a Reform synagogue in a community north of Chicago that had a very sizeable Jewish population. I was a member of the children’s choir in my temple and sang at Friday night services and lots of other events, and was just a part of Jewish culture. I loved the music. I was confirmed—my brother was bar mitzvah’ed, but in my family it was only the boys who were bar mitzvah’ed and the girls were confirmed. My grandfather, whose name was Israel, was Orthodox and very much a part of the Jewish culture.
Was there something in your Jewish upbringing that led you to politics?
I would say indirectly. My family was not political in any way. They had opinions about people who were running for office, but they didn’t identify with a party, although most of the time they voted Democratic. My grandparents had been refugees from pogroms, so we were very mindful of issues surrounding the Holocaust, human rights and the importance of active conscience and standing up for what’s right. And to me, that was very much one in the same as growing up Jewish. Being Jewish was very much about standing up for what’s right—and human rights and civil liberties were really front and center of that. My mother always used to say that the tragedy of the Holocaust should never have happened, and that everyone should have stood up and resisted early on. That was the kind of sense of morality that I grew up with: What you’re supposed to do is stand up and not worry about the consequences of speaking up for what’s right, because the consequences of failure to do that are unthinkable. I think that really framed my outlook on life.
What is the relationship between Jewish and Green values?
Human rights and the welfare of people are really key in Green values. In addition, a sense of harmony with the earth and harmony across God’s creation is implicit in Jewish values. There’s a very seamless connection, in my mind, between Jewish values and understanding that we are all part of an ecosystem that all of our lives depend on.
Why did you decide to enter politics?
It was as a mother and a medical doctor that I began to be active in community affairs. Early on in my career, I grew impatient with handing out pills and pushing people back out to the things that were making them sick to start with, and I was concerned with the failure of our healthcare system to meet the needs of people who really need it. I was also concerned with an epidemic of new chronic diseases that were descending on young people: Diabetes, asthma, cancer, learning disabilities, autism—you name it. So I began to get really involved in community groups that were fighting the causes of some of these diseases—fighting to clean up air quality, to clean up coal plants. So that’s where I got my education. But after ten years of advocating for motherhood and apple pie, I discovered that motherhood and apple pie doesn’t really count—it’s the lobbyists and the campaign contributions that determine policy. I became involved in the clean elections referendum in Massachusetts, which was an effort to get the big money out. And we succeeded. But what happened then was the biggest wake-up call of all—the legislature of Massachusetts, which at the time was about 85 percent Democratic, turned around and began to fight the law, and in the course of a year, repealed it. That’s why I tell people that I’m practicing political medicine, because it’s the mother of all illnesses. If we want to fix the other thins that ail us, we have to start by fixing the sick political system. All the other reforms that we desperately need are effectively dead in the water until we reclaim a politics of integrity, a politics of by and for the people. It was right around that time that I was recruited by the Green Party to run for governor, never having been a member of any political party, or having attended a political meeting of any sort. And I went from absolute desperation to inspiration, seeing so many people out there like me, whose voices were silenced by the system. It was so uplifting to see that we actually have solutions, and we have public support if we can get past the censorship at the microphone and the control of big money in the political system.
Can you explain your position on healthcare reform, and how your experience as a physician has shaped your views?
We have Obamacare here in Massachusetts, although we call it Romneycare for all the differences that there are between the two. In Massachusetts, healthcare was effectively extended for the poor, but the cost for the near-poor skyrocketed. A new study by the Harvard School of Public Health and Blue Cross Blue Shield showed that 80 percent of people who got sick under healthcare reform still have very serious problems trying to cover costs. The real solution, that has public support in poll after poll, is simply expanding Medicare by dropping the age of eligibility. The reason it works is because the overhead in our current, private healthcare system is about 30 percent, while under Medicare it’s about three percent. So we get to effectively increase the funding without putting in another penny. The other well-kept secret about Medicare for all is that it stabilizes medical inflation. In doing that, we save trillions of dollars in the next decade, enough to be probably the biggest factor in driving down the grown national debt. We can choose how to solve the national debt: We can reduce the debt through austerity or we can reduce the debt through healthcare for everyone. Seems like an obvious choice.
Can you explain the Green New Deal for American that you’re proposing?
This is the centerpiece for our agenda, and I think it’s the centerpiece for America’s agenda. We’re stuck at this eight-point-something rate of unemployment, and it’s not going down. One out of every two Americans is in poverty or are low-income and headed for poverty. So we have a desperate problem with our economy that’s not being fixed. The Green New Deal offers a solution. It is an emergency program to create 25 million jobs, community-based jobs that not only will put everybody back to work, it will jumpstart the green economy that we need to survive in the 21st century. So it solves two emergencies at once, the economic emergency as well as the climate emergency. In doing so, it makes wars for oil obsolete, and therein lies the funding for most of this program. The Green New Deal would be nationally funded, but community controlled, so communities have the option to create jobs, to make them sustainable ecologically as well as economically and socially. That includes what we think of as green jobs in clean manufacturing, renewable energy, local organic agriculture and public transportation, and also jobs in service areas of the economy, including hiring back the 300,000 teachers we need, child care, after school, violence prevention, drug abuse prevention and rehabilitation, affordable housing construction—all spectrum of jobs that meet our social needs.