Chaim Mentz is a registered Democrat who has voted Democratic in the past five elections.
Come November, though, the Orthodox rabbi and former KFI radio talk show host plans to throw his support behind President Bush. In Mentz's opinion, the upcoming election isn't about abortion and school vouchers but about life-and-death national security issues. Given Bush's forceful prosecution of the war on terror and bedrock support for Ariel Sharon, the rabbi said he feels comfortable crossing party lines.
Lifelong Democrat Phyllis Siegel has never voted for a Republican. An assistant principal at LeConte Middle School in Hollywood, the 57-year-old Los Angeles resident said she has contributed money to former President Bill Clinton and Sen. Diane Feinstein, Democrats who share her pro-choice, pro-women's rights views.
Like Mentz, however, she plans to cast a ballot for Bush. It's not that she doesn't like Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). She does. It's just that his promise to run much of his foreign policy through multilateral diplomacy and the United Nations -- an organization that once equated Zionism with racism -- worries her.
"I think [Bush] is right about these wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that's to fight terrorists on their turf, on their side of the mountain, on their side of the ocean," she said. "If we weren't over there, they'd be here, landing at our airports and trying to take out the United States."
An increasing number of Jews across the Southland and nation appear more likely to vote Republican in the upcoming election than at anytime since 1980, when Ronald Reagan won almost 40 percent of the Jewish vote in a backlash against President Jimmy Carter for high inflation and his perceived pressure on Israel. Bush, a social conservative and born-again Christian, has curried favor among many in the community with his war on terror and, more important, his steadfast commitment to Israel. The president recently won kudos by publicly supporting Israel's policies of maintaining heavily populated settlements in the occupied West Bank and rejecting Palestinian claims of a "right of return."
Before Republicans celebrate a future wave of expected local and national Jewish support, they would be to wise to look to the past, said Howard Welinsky, chair of Democrats for Israel. "For many years, I've heard Republican Jews predict that the Jewish vote would be theirs, and every time they've been wrong," he said. "I suspect this time they are, too."
A recent small sampling of California Jews suggests that Republican optimism could be misplaced. An April Los Angeles Times survey found that Kerry's support among the state's Jews was about the same as Al Gore's, who won 81 percent of their vote in 2000, according to exit polls. Although the Times survey polled too few Jews to be statistically significant, it might suggest broad trends, said Susan Pinkus, director of the Los Angeles Times Poll.
Bush's support for Israel might not win him as many votes as supporters hope. Although a candidate's views on Israel matter, Jews are by no means single-issue voters, said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, senior scholar at USC's School of Policy, Planning and Development.
Also, the community is divided on the best approach to bringing peace to the troubled region. Whereas older Jews tend to favor more forceful policies, younger Jews often prefer a softer line than the Sharon-Bush tact. In any event, Bush and Kerry both strongly support the Jewish state, she added.
Even if Bush does garner more Jewish support for his pro-Israel views, "it's hard for me seeing anything else bringing Jewish voters to Bush," said Raphael Sonenshein, a professor of political science at Cal State Fullerton. Among the most liberal voting blocs, Jews largely belong to the Democratic Party and favor a liberal social agenda embraced by Kerry and other left-of-center politicians, he said.
To be sure, the president's resolute response after Sept. 11 won praise from Jews of all political stripes. Iraq, though, has been less popular. Many Jews initially supported Bush's decision on Iraq, but the failure to find weapons of mass destruction and the costly, bloody occupation has cost him in recent state polls.
"Whether you're a Republican or Democrat, you don't like to see your fellow Americans coming back in caskets," said Bush supporter Lee Alpert, a moderate Republican who held several positions in the administration of former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan.
Local Jewish Republicans remain upbeat. A fundraiser held earlier this year for the Bush-Cheney team at the home of Brad Cohen of Cohen Asset Management Inc., a real estate investment firm, attracted 200 Jews. The event, which Vice President Dick Cheney attended, raised at least $400,000, sources said. Cohen declined to comment.
Dr. Joel Strom, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said he thought Bush could win about 30 percent of the Jewish vote in California. Many Jews who once viewed him as a warmonger have come to see Bush as a strong leader focused on protecting America.
"When I first supported the president in 2000, I got nothing but jeers and hate calls," said Strom, a Beverly Hills dentist and a professor of ethics at USC Dental School. "Now, I have people coming up to me in synagogue and quietly whispering, 'Hey, I can't believe I'm going to vote for him.'"