Jill Stein may forever hold the title of first Jewish woman presidential candidate, but Jewish voters refuse to embrace her as a historic figure.
Nationally, between 3% and 5% of voters say they will cast their ballot for Stein, 66. That’s not a figure that would draw any attention under ordinary circumstances. But in an election cycle where nothing is ordinary, and in which both major party candidates are suffering from low favorability numbers, the third-party candidates — both Stein and libertarian Gary Johnson — are enjoying their moment in the headlines.
Unlike Bernie Sanders, the Jewish liberal senator from Vermont who challenged Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries, Stein openly attributes her social justice values to her Jewish upbringing. But while a vocal minority of the Jewish community embraced Sanders anyway, Stein doesn’t enjoy nearly that level of support among Jews. The mainstream deplores her views on Israel, which are far more extreme than Sanders’s. And progressives still reeling from Al Gore’s 2000 defeat — blamed in part on perceived spoiler Ralph Nader — worry that Stein might have the same effect on Hillary Clinton. Sanders, after all, had a real — albeit long — shot at actually winning the nomination. Stein doesn’t.
“The danger of electing a fascist as president of the United States is great enough for us to forgo our individual conscience for the social conscience,” said Rabbi Arthur Waskow, a progressive environmentalist who leads The Shalom Center, in Philadelphia. He suggested that a vote for Stein and the Green Party could be an option offered only in states where Clinton is ensured a significant victory margin.
On its face, Stein’s background and upbringing seem guaranteed to appeal to liberal Jewish voters.
She grew up in a suburban Chicago Reform family where Jewish values were often translated into social activism. “From my perspective, the need to do justice, love mercy was the watchword of my community, the Jewish community where I grew up,” Stein said in a 2012 interview with the Forward.
Her grandparents immigrated to America at young ages, fleeing pogroms and mandatory conscription in Russia. Israel Wool, Stein’s maternal grandfather and a “a very observant Orthodox Jew,” built his own successful real estate business in Chicago, despite his lack of a formal education. On her father’s side, Stein’s grandfather, Abe Stein, was a tailor and the owner of a garment factory. He later moved to Hollywood to pursue a career as a costume designer.
“My parents were of the Holocaust generation,” Stein told Forbes in a 2012 interview. “I heard from my mother in particular about the importance of taking social responsibility and the importance of speaking up when you see things going on in your community that are not right. It’s absolutely critical, it’s of paramount importance to stand up.”
Stein attended services with her parents at North Shore Congregation Israel, a Reform synagogue, and went to Sunday school for 10 years, up to her confirmation. In synagogue, Stein said, she found the “sort of values of the Old Testament, the Golden Rule,” which was “very much drummed into my upbringing.”
But while she described the impact of her Jewish background as “huge,” Stein grew distant from Reform Judaism’s religious elements. After graduating from Harvard Medical School she stayed in Massachusetts, practicing and teaching medicine alongside her political activism. While her parents were alive, Stein attended High Holiday services with them, but since the passing of her mother in 2010 she no longer actively participates in Jewish life.
“I was raised Jewish, though I’m not an actively practicing Jew,” she said, describing herself as “very much culturally Jewish.” She lives in a mixed-faith family, “which is predominantly agnostic” and “a little bit ecumenical.”
Stein’s relationship with her Jewish upbringing bears a striking resemblance to that of Sanders, as do many of her views on social issues. Like Sanders, Stein viewed her childhood in mid-20th century America as offering a better way for middle-class Americans.
“I had all those advantages of the 1950s,” she said, noting the quality public education she received, and “growing up in an age when a one-income family could support a household.”
Stein is far more critical of Israel, however, than even Sanders is. Stein supports the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement; Sanders does not. Stein wants to cut aid to Israel; Sanders does not. Stein accuses Israel of committing war crimes and of breaking international law, while Sanders focused his criticisms on the use of excessive force in Gaza. And Sanders does say publicly that he supports Israel, while Stein does not.
Despite these differences, Stein sought to harness Sanders’s success by inviting him to join the Green Party, even as leader on the ticket, after it became clear he had no chance of winning the Democratic Party’s nomination. “As the neoliberal Democratic machine mobilizes to quash revolution in its ranks, I urge you to consider opening a window of historic possibility outside the Democratic Party,” Stein wrote to Sanders. When Sanders refused even to speak to Green Party activists and went on to endorse Clinton, Stein reached out to his voters, calling on them to “reject the self-defeating strategy of voting for the lesser evil and join our fight for the greater good.”
Sanders was likely the only Jewish American whom Stein had actively courted. Her campaign has not reached out to Jewish voters, and throughout her career she had little contact with Jewish communal figures. The only elected office Stein had ever held was as a meeting representative of her hometown of Lexington, Massachusetts, a position similar to that of a council member. She launched two unsuccessful gubernatorial campaigns and ran for several statewide positions, but as a Green-Rainbow Party candidate she never had a realistic chance of winning. In 2012 Stein defeated Jewish comedian and actress Roseanne Barr in the Green Party primary and won nearly half a million votes nationally, more than any other woman in American presidential history.
But Jewish organizations never noticed Stein’s political career. Her positions on Israel made her toxic for Jewish social justice groups focused on domestic change.
“Some of what she says makes good sense,” said a Jewish organizational official involved in social activism, who requested anonymity to avoid public association with Stein, “but she has so much other baggage.”
Stein believes that unconditional American support for Israel enables “violation of international law and human rights,” which, she argued, Israel perpetrates by “its occupations, its home demolitions, its assassinations and so on.” Stein and the Green Party have called for an end to American military assistance, which, she said, allows Israel to continue its actions “to the tune of $8 million a day.” She also backs the movement calling for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. Responding to criticism that her policy singles out Israel, Stein recently made clear that the party’s position is based on “general standard of international law and human rights that our administration would apply to all countries,” and that Saudi Arabia should also expect a cut in ties with the United States in a Stein presidency.
To be sure, Stein’s foreign policy contains some internal inconsistencies. She’s been critical of Israel and Saudi Arabia’s human rights records, but [denounced (http://www.jill2016.com/in_moscow_presidential_candidate_stein_calls_for_us_foreign_policy_of_principled_collaboration_rather_than_lawless_domination) President Obama for wishing to depose Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, who has been condemned internationally for crimes against his own people. Stein praised controversial WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange as a “hero” while dismissing concerns that Russia had hacked email accounts of the Democratic National Committee. Her running mate, Ajamu Baraka, recently had to apologize after contributing an article to a book written by a Holocaust denier.
Stein’s own strand of progressiveness has set her apart from the broader liberal Jewish community. But standing up to what she views as universal values is, in fact, part of her Jewish heritage as she sees it. “I was brought up in a Reform Jewish family” she said,“where the key [aspects of faith] are community and social responsibility. I did not come away with a sense of ‘Jewish right and wrong’ that is different from ‘right and wrong’ period.”
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman