Jews Split Over Arnold Victory

“It used to be in California that we were afraid to speak out in a roomful of Jews, but now we’re standing up and speaking up,” said a jubilant Bruce Bialosky, who chairs the Southern California chapter of the Republican Jewish Coalition. “Why, even the rabbis are changing their sermons.”

Bialosky talked on his cell phone above the din at Arnold Schwarzenegger’s victory party, minutes after Democratic Gov. Gray Davis had conceded his loss in the recall election, and the Republican movie star was chosen as his successor.

“This is akin to the Reagan revolution and we’re going to make big inroads into the Democratic hold on Jewish voters,” proclaimed attorney Sheldon Sloan, one of Schwarzenegger’s earliest Jewish backers.

The optimistic outlook of the two Republican stalwarts was not shared by Democrats. Most political analysts did not foresee a basic change in the state’s political culture.

Davis had assiduously cultivated the 1 million strong Jewish community of California during his five years as governor, and in a quick election night survey, experts and partisans were asked whether Jewish influence in Sacramento would wane under the new governor.

“I doubt it,” said Republican pollster Arnold Steinberg. “There are so many Jews in the entertainment industry and on the Westside who know Arnold, and he will be reaching out to the Jewish community fairly quickly.”

Bialosky, who was also celebrating his 50th birthday, and Sloan felt certain that there were enough high-level Republican Jews in Los Angeles and the state that Jewish concerns would be listened to by the new administration.

A dissenting opinion came from widely read urban analyst Joel Kotkin, who foresaw a “pretty heavy gentile administration” with a concomitant loss of Jewish clout.

He put most of the blame for such a change of fortune on Jewish leaders, who, he said, “had ignored their own tradition by making comfortable deals with Davis, an amoral politician who debased the political culture of California.”

Kotkin said that if the Democratic establishment had not pressured top-ranked Democrats from entering the governor’s race to help Davis, someone like Jewish U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein “would have creamed Schwarzenegger.”

Although no demographic exit polls have been released, Kotkin estimated that some 30 percent of Jewish voters cast their ballots for Schwarzenegger, an unusually high figure for California.

Experts doubted that the Schwarzenegger victory would translate into a national uptick for Republicans, although “it’s a big morale booster for the beleaguered White House,” said political scientist Raphael Sonenshein of California State University, Fullerton.

On the other hand, the Davis recall has “enraged thousands of Jewish and other Democrats, who will redouble their efforts to beat Bush at the next election,” Sonenshein said. He predicted that the 2004 national election “will be the closest to a civil war we’ve had since the Civil War.”

The real impact of the new administration on California’s Jewish communities might be in economic terms, especially if deep budget cuts lower state support for Jewish and general social welfare agencies, said John Fishel, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

Jewish voters were apparently little impressed by charges that Schwarzenegger, whose father was a member of the Nazi party and SA (storm troopers) in Austria, had harbored some admiration for Hitler as a youth.

The charges were largely neutralized by the actor’s long-standing financial and speaking support for the Simon Wiesenthal Center and its Museum of Tolerance.

“Arnold has been our No. 1 supporter in the entertainment industry and he is certainly an anti-Nazi,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the center’s associate dean. On election night, Cooper was asked and accepted membership of the team handling the transition between the outgoing and incoming governors.

Jewish Democrats and progressives sought whatever comfort they could find.

Howard Welinsky, chair of Democrats for Israel, said that while Schwarzenegger’s agenda was unknown, the Jewish community had maintained excellent relations with the previous Republican governor, Pete Wilson, who served as Schwarzenegger’s chief adviser.

Daniel J. Sokatch, executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, hoped that the election results would fire up liberals and pointed out that all other elected state offices, the legislature and the House and Senate delegations are still in Democratic hands.

The losers could also find some modest consolation in the overwhelming defeat of Proposition 54, which was opposed by almost all Jewish organizations. If passed, the measure would have stopped the state from collecting and using most racial and ethnic data.

Opponents feared that passage of the proposition would have hampered efforts to stop racial profiling and encourage affirmative action.

But, observed John J. Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, even this victory “was a small wisp of balm on a large wound.”