Amid all the hubbub over Democratic vice presidential nominee Joseph Lieberman, few noticed that Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader beat Al Gore to the punch in picking a Jewish running mate.
For the second time in as many election cycles, the famed consumer advocate is joined on the Green Party line by environmentalist and American Indian activist Winona LaDuke, the daughter of a Jewish mother and an Anishinabekwe father.
Unlike 1996, when Nader and LaDuke didn’t bother to mount a serious campaign, this time around they are garnering some national media attention with their relentless critique of corporate influence on the government, economy, society, environment – and not least of all – on the two major political parties.
The 41-year-old LaDuke, who lives on the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota with her three children, has a long record of activism on behalf of American Indians and the environment.
She is the founder of the White Earth Land Recovery Project, which buys back historical tribal lands, and has served on the board of Greenpeace USA. In 1994, Time magazine named her one of America’s 50 most promising leaders under the age of 40.
That LaDuke’s Jewish heritage has gone largely unnoticed is not entirely inexplicable. She’s certainly not as Jewishly observant as Lieberman. While she does celebrate Chanukah and Passover, she mainly practices American Indian spiritual traditions.
Asked if she considers herself Jewish, she equivocates: “I consider that I come from a family that has Jewish ancestry.” She adds, however, that she is “really proud” of her Jewish heritage.
LaDuke says her activism was nurtured by her Jewish mother and her grandmother, who was a member of the legendary International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union.
“I come from a family of very progressive Jews.” She says her mother and grandmother taught her, “You shouldn’t be afraid to say what is right, and you should think when you buy things if it was made in a sweatshop or if they were unionized when they built this, and you should ask questions about equity and justice.”
The Nader/LaDuke candidacy has sparked considerable debate on the left where many find Gore’s centrism off-putting. But many progressives fear that Nader will siphon off just enough votes from Gore to toss the election to Republican candidate Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
LaDuke admits that under a hypothetical system of preference voting, whereby voters could indicate a second and third preference for each office – something the Greens have championed – Gore would be her second choice.
But LaDuke makes no apologies for the possibility that her candidacy could give the Republicans a victory in November by attracting voters away from the Gore- Lieberman ticket.
She cites the importance of engaging a broader spectrum of American voters, building the Green Party and qualifying the party for federal matching funds.
LaDuke acknowledges that on issues like the environment, Bush is “much worse” than Gore, contrasting the low level of environmental spending in Texas under Bush with Gore’s authorship of a book on the environment, “Earth in the Balance.” Gore, she says, “knows what’s right.”
But LaDuke is dissatisfied with Gore’s record on the environment in the Clinton administration. She cites Gore’s championing of the North American Free Trade Agreement and what she calls an “absence of leadership” on alternative energy and global warming.
She sees at least one similarity between Bush and Gore on the environment. “They both have their public policy largely influenced by corporate interests. And those corporate interests are not environmentally based.”
She says her ticket has a chance of getting elected if those who do not ordinarily vote get out and cast their ballots this time. Nonvoters, she says, are “the largest voting party in America.”
It’s a party LaDuke belonged to until recently, never having voted in a presidential election until she first ran with Nader in 1996. “I was one of those disenfranchised voters. Nothing resonated with me as far as what was being said or the candidates.”
And what would the U.S.-Israel relationship look like in a Nader-LaDuke administration? LaDuke says the two countries should maintain good relations and that she’s basically pleased with the way the Clinton administration has handled relations with Israel, with one caveat. Citing the use of American-made weapons in conflicts throughout the world and U.S. military aid to Colombia, she says she is very concerned with the “militarization of foreign policy,” adding that the U.S.-Israel relationship falls into that category.
“We need to diminish the amount of military aid given to Israel as well as other countries significantly.” Asked whether Israel needs U.S. military aid for self-defense, she replies, “I think we need to be waging peace, not waging war.” (LaDuke was interviewed on July 26 for New Voices, the national Jewish student magazine, by Daniel Treiman, New Voices’ co-editor and the director of the Jewish Student Press Service.)