Maryland resident Jerome Segal, a Jewish philosopher and activist, is running for president as the nominee for the Bread and Roses party, which he founded last year. The party was certified earlier this year in Maryland, where Segal will appear on the ballot in the 2020 presidential election.
Segal created the Bread and Roses party after his loss in the 2018 Maryland senatorial race, when he challenged the incumbent Democrat, Ben Cardin, in the Democratic primary. Defining itself as “socialistic” rather than socialist, the Bread and Roses party maintains that it is “an electoral party for both new socialists and non-socialists, a party with a strong utopian and international orientation, one in pursuit of a new American dream,” according to its website. And while Segal will appear on Maryland’s ballots, the party will not be on the ballot in any swing state so as not to become “a ‘spoiler’ that draws voters away from the Democratic Party, and thus contributes to the re-election of Donald Trump.”
Segal has had a long career in both local and international politics. Beginning in 1979, he worked at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in the Central Policy Bureau as the Coordinator for the Near East. After Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Segal founded the Washington Area Jews for Israeli-Palestinian Peace to protest the war, which he felt “was driven by an ideological determination to forever maintain Israeli control over the West Bank,” according to the bio posted on his presidential campaign website. In 1987, Segal represented this group in meetings with Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) leaders including Yasser Arafat. His 1988 article in Al-Quds, a Palestinian Arabic language daily newspaper, titled “From Uprising to Independent State,” served as a catalyst for the 1988 Palestinian Declaration of Independence and for which Segal received national recognition from The New York Times and The Washington Post. Shortly after, and partly because of his communication with the PLO, Segal resigned from his position at USAID and began teaching at the University of Maryland. In 1989, Segal founded the Jewish Peace Lobby, the first pro-Israel congressional lobbying alternative to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). After the electoral victory of Hamas in the Palestinian legislative elections, Segal met with Hamas Prime Minister Haniyeh to discuss a possible peace plan and its potential ratification by the Palestinian people. Segal has met with multiple presidential administrations, including those of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Donald Trump, as both a private advocate and requested advisor to discuss solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Moment editorial fellow Lilly Gelman sat down with Segal to discuss his career, decision to run, campaign and political philosophy.
What was your Jewish life like growing up?
I came out of a Jewish socialist family from the Bronx, New York. My father was an immigrant from Poland who came to the United States in the late 1920s. He was a Bundist [secular Jewish socialist] and was very much focused on Yiddish as a language rather than Hebrew. After school, we went to the Shalom Aleichem shulns [“school”], to learn Yiddish. I don’t speak Yiddish now, but I remember that we did have the ability to actually read Shalom Aleichem stories in Yiddish.
What’s your relationship with Jewish life today?
I got much more interested in Judaism when my son was born. It raised the question of how to bring up a child in a Jewish way that makes sense to yourself. In the Maryland area, maybe 10 years before my son was born, a group of people founded Chavera, a cooperative Jewish school and an educational project for parents to deepen their understanding, reconstruct liturgy and cooperatively run a school for their children. I got involved and taught a “Bible as literature” class. Out of that, I ended up writing a book called Joseph’s Bones: Understanding the Conflict between God and Humanity in the Bible. It’s a close reading of the first six books of the Bible, Genesis through Joshua, arguing that these are a coherent whole, and can best be read by understanding the discussion of Joseph’s bones, which the Jewish people took with them from Egypt and eventually buried in Israel.
How do you differentiate the Bread and Roses party from the Democratic party?
The term Bread and Roses comes from the Bread and Roses strike, a labor strike in 1912, in Lawrence, Massachusetts. During that strike, women, immigrants and other strikers marched under a banner that said “Bread, and Roses Too.” We see that as meaning, yes, we need bread—we’re at the bottom of the totem pole, we’re overworked and underpaid—but we’re also complex human beings with complex needs for meaning and creativity, and for leisure and enjoyment of the good things in life. To talk about roses, and why we took Bread and Roses as the name of our party, is to put on the agenda not just bread, but also beauty, meaning, creativity and leisure.
Our program comes out of simple living. The socialist part of it is mostly the policy devices to make it possible for Americans as a whole to move towards a simple living kind of ideal.
Do you believe the government should play a role in shifting how Americans live their lives?
This is like asking, what is an economy for? One way of answering that is that the purpose of an economy is to promote the wellbeing or happiness of the people in society. In order to do that, you have to understand what their dreams are. Where do people find happiness? Some people find it in work, and part of our utopian vision of work is that every person should have as some part of their work-life an element of really meaningful creative work that enriches them. We believe job sharing is one way to do that, in addition to certain kinds of education, guaranteed jobs and supporting the nonprofit realm. All these sorts of things open up new ways, new patterns of work life. You won’t have one job, you’ll have three jobs; and you won’t have one career, you’ll have ten careers. You won’t retire as long as you’re healthy. What you’ll have is a right to hold on to work, and a tripling of the nonprofit sectors and meaningful jobs all over the place.
Why should the government shift away from existing capitalist ideals?
In the Declaration of Independence, we have the concept of the pursuit of happiness as part of the whole idea of government. The conditions for pursuing happiness are so different today than they were in the whole history of America.
Most happiness does not come from consumption. It’s true of every tradition. When we talk about Judaism, we have the first anti-consumption legislation in human history: the Sabbath! One-seventh of your time cannot be devoted to working or commerce and has to be devoted to something different. If you read The Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel makes this amazing point that the first thing which was designated as holy in the Torah is the seventh day, and that Judaism is the religion of time rather than things. That’s what Roses is about. The Puritans also had anti-consumption laws, and we still have some Blue Laws. It’s a whole American tradition. Now, we’re not talking about the government forcing this right. We’re talking about a pluralistic society where the government creates this option for the people.
The background socioeconomic conditions are never neutral. They either make certain kinds of lifestyles more difficult or certain kinds more possible. Simple living is extraordinarily difficult in America right now, because we are an extraordinarily inefficient society and don’t know it.
It seems like Andrew Yang’s idea of Universal Basic Income aligns with Bread and Roses’s desire to give people the chance to live with more pleasure and dignity. Do you agree?
Our relationship with what Yang is doing is very complex. We have two basic ideas on our platform: equality of condition and the simple living option. These two basic ideas are the fundamentals of the economy. Yes, we talk like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders about higher taxation on the wealthy, but we’re actually talking about that as part of something much bigger picture—changing the shape of the whole social pyramid in the United States. It’s not just a question of getting the rich to pay their fair share in a rat race for the top. What we want is an America in which there is far less difference between the winners and the losers.
We would need mechanisms of transferring wealth and income from the top 20 percent to the rest of society. One of the mechanisms of that is what I call “democratic ownership of the means of production,” which is to have the bottom 90 percent of America own 75 percent of the corporate stock in America. What Yang is talking about with Universal Basic Income is for people to have an unearned income that is not tied to any job. But there already is a tremendous amount of unearned income, over $3 trillion of it, in the American economy, that is not tied to any job—the income people get from their ownership of stocks and bonds. What I like about Yang is that many of our utopian transitions, both in how we work and in education and so on, are things that he’s talking about now. So there is a fit, and to tell you the truth, if and when Yang drops out, I’m open to asking him if he’d like to be my vice president or running mate.
What is your relationship to Israel? Do you consider yourself a Zionist?
I do in theory, as long as you are distinguishing between Zionism as an ideology versus Zionism as a practice. For many Israelis, Zionists are only people who made aliyah. You’re not a Zionist the way somebody is socialist by virtue of having certain beliefs. Obviously, I didn’t make aliyah, so from that point of view, in practice, I’m not a Zionist. But if you view Zionism from the point of view of a set of beliefs, the question is whether or not you support the idea of a Jewish state—and I do.
You met with PLO leaders in 1988 just before your resignation from the USAID. Could you talk about that time and what impact it had on your involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
One of the things in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that I’m best known for is the Palestinian Declaration of Independence. I’d met with Arafat and the PLO leadership in 1987 before the Intifada started as part of the first Jewish American delegation to open that dialogue. Arafat said he wanted to make peace and get into negotiations. Many people thought we were a well-intentioned, naive group. Interestingly, the U.S. government took it very seriously. A year later, I was involved in back-channel stuff that helped the PLO seem favorable to Reagan. Before Reagan left office, in December 1988, he accepted that the PLO had met three conditions: recognizing Israel’s right to exist, accepting the UN resolution 242 and renouncing terrorism. A U.S.-PLO dialogue was open. That laid the basis for the Oslo Accords and the White House signing.
The key to this was not December 1988, but November 1988, which was when the Palestinians issued a Declaration of Independence. I wrote an article in Al-Quds in April of that year—which many people believe was the catalyst that led to the declaration— which put forward an alternative to negotiations. It was a unilateral strategy, not just to declare independence, but to unilaterally begin the peace process.
I’ve argued to the Trump administration and tried to interest them in offering the Palestinians a very simple deal that would simply reaffirm what’s in their Declaration of Independence—that the State of Palestine accepts the international legitimacy of the partition resolution, which called for an Arab state and a Jewish state, and that if it reaffirms that the United States would then recognize the State of Palestine and support admission to the United Nations. That is actually a central part of my campaign platform.
What do you think of Trump’s Israeli policies so far?
There are certain aspects of the Trump administration’s approach to trying to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace that were interesting ideas. One was to not repeat the business of putting forward one or two pages of parameters but to put forward a fully detailed plan. Although we still haven’t seen it (and I don’t have any strong expectations for it), no American administration has done this until the Trump administration. The second interesting idea was that maybe it would be possible to resolve some of the most difficult issues outside of the negotiations, and I think Jerusalem is one of the ways to do this. Trump should have said that not only do we support the two-state solution, but we will recognize West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine, with some sort of shared arrangement for the Old City and the Temple Mount. We’d have two capitals for the two states. That could have actually been something that would have gotten worldwide support.
Instead, by just taking one side, Trump took the United States away from the table. He disempowered the United States as an honest broker altogether.
What do you hope to accomplish by running for president?
I’m not silly, I don’t think I’m going to become president of the United States. But it’s a way of trying to put major new ideas into the national discourse. And I’m challenging the Democratic candidates to take on these ideas.