A provocateur to some, Michele Bachmann also offers Jewish voters common cause

Rep. Michele Bachmann visits the ruins at Capernaum in Israel's Galilee region on a November 2008 trip sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. (Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas)

Rep. Michele Bachmann visits the ruins at Capernaum in Israel’s Galilee region on a November 2008 trip sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. (Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Michele Bachmann in a bathroom confronted by two lesbians and screaming for help, or Bachmann at the Western Wall surrounded by Jews and weeping with joy.

Where your politics are likely will determine which incident involving Bachmann you’d highlight.

But supporters of Bachmann, a presidential aspirant from the Republican Party, acknowledge that both incidents have their root in the same characteristics: a woman unafraid of letting her deepest convictions rise unfiltered to the surface.

When Michele speaks one on one, there is nothing fake about her,” said Danny Rosen, a Minnesota lawyer who is a  longtime supporter of Bachmann. “You can sense that she is revealing the real Michele.  That can be a disarming quality.”

It’s been a problem in the past for the congresswoman from eastern Minnesota. Bachmann, 55, acknowledges that her tendency to speak off the cuff can get her into trouble.

“People can make mistakes, and I wish I could be perfect every time I say something, but I can’t,” she told CNN this week.

Bachmann’s impressive performance in the first major GOP debate earlier this month has vaulted her to the forefront of a crowded Republican field.

Her capacity for self-deprecation helped her ace the June 13 forum on CNN. Other candidates stalled or looked embarrassed when the moderator posed quirky “either-or” pop culture questions. Bachmann said she liked both Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley, then delivered a full-throated laugh at her own inability to decide.

She also displayed command of the issues, particularly those relating to her fiscal conservatism. Bachmann, trained as a lawyer, at the tip of her fingers had analyses that she used to attack President Obama’s economic policies, citing a study that she said showed an 800,000 job loss figure as a result of health care reform.

Many of her pro-Israel supporters said they were especially impressed by her command of Middle East issues, pointing in particular to a recent video on Israel posted by her campaign. The video showcases Bachmann’s understanding of how Israelis view their alliance with the United States as nuanced, emotive and consistent with her pronounced Christian identity.

“We even share the same exceptional mission, to be a light to the nations,” she says in the clip. “After all, the image of America as a shining city on the hill was taken from the book of Isaiah.”

The video, which is dedicated to Israel, also blasts Obama for what she says was the president’s call for Israel to “give up its right to defensible borders.” (Obama in fact has said that secure borders must be an outcome of negotiations.)

Caroline Glick, the conservative Jerusalem Post columnist, called the Bachmann video the most cogent explanation of the U.S.-Israel relationship she had ever heard.

“And this speech came out of nowhere,” Glick said. “She’s not pandering for votes. No one asked her to say this. She just decided that she had to make a statement.”

Bachmann held a reception after the most recent American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in May at the same time as receptions hosted by former U.S. House of Representatives speaker Newt Gingrich, who is also running for the GOP presidential nod, and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.

Bachmann easily attracted the biggest crowd, and she cut short her remarks to accommodate a line of photo-seekers snaking outside the hall.

Bachmann, the wife of a psychological counselor who runs a Christian-themed practice, told the crowd that she and her family make sure each year to have at least one Jewish event, attending a Jewish-themed play or movie.

Her formal candidacy announcement also included a reference to Israel.

“We can’t afford four more years of a foreign policy that leads from behind and doesn’t stand up for our friends, like Israel, and too often fails to stand up to our enemies,” she said in Iowa.

Bachmann’s dedication to the Jewish state dates back to 1974, when she was selected at age 17 to join a group of Minnesota teens to spend a summer in Israel. Working on Kibbutz Be’eri in the Negev left an impression.

“We were always accompanied by soldiers with machine guns,” she said a year ago in an interview with TCJewFolk, a clearinghouse for young Jewish bloggers in Minnesota. “While we were working, the soldiers were walking around looking for land mines.”

Bachmann came across as knowledgeable and informed about the region, said Jenna Mitelman, who had interviewed her for TCJewFolk at the 2010 AIPAC policy conference.

“She was informed on the minor details of what’s going on,” said Mitelman, a political independent.

Bachmann reached out to Jewish backers in 2005 as soon as she sought the seat in the 6th District when Rep. Mark Kennedy, the Republican incumbent, launched an ultimately unsuccessful Senate bid. She had served in the state Senate since 2001.

Her career, launched out of frustration with her local school board — she is the mother of five and has been a foster parent for 23 children — has flourished as speeches calling for a return to what she said were the founders’ intentions have drawn conservative interest.

While Bachmann’s district includes two small Jewish communities, her interest in Israel and in Jews stems more from her upbringing and her beliefs than anything else, her supporters say. She has made fast friends among conservative Jews, attending their lifecycle events and sharing Friday-night dinners.

“She is a compassionate person and substantive person despite caricatures,” said Mark Miller, who founded the local Republican Jewish Coalition chapter. “She never met my mom, but shortly after she died I got a handwritten letter of condolences. She has real ‘rachmones,’ ” he said, using the Yiddish term for mercy.

Todd Gurstel, a lawyer who backs Bachmann, was with her in 2008 when she toured the tunnel beneath the Western Wall. Gurstel said he enjoyed watching Bachmann fence with his liberal in-laws when she attended his daughter’s bat mitzvah.

“The thing that makes Michele different than any other politician is that she sticks to her conviction despite however outrageous it may seem to others,” he said, noting that he disagrees with the candidate on issues such as gay rights and abortion.

Bachmann became a leader in Minnesota’s movement pushing back against gay rights’ activists. In 2005, she left a meeting with constituents rather than address a question from a gay rights activist. When the activist and a companion followed her into the bathroom to press their case, she screamed for help.

The lawmaker called police, but no charges were filed. An investigation concluded that the two women were interested only in discussing gay rights.

Frank Hornstein, a Democratic state representative, said her postures on gay rights, abortion and slashing social services make her a bad fit for the Jewish community.

“She has been a leading voice in opposition to things that have been a high priority for the Jewish community over many, many years,” he said.

Hornstein noted that in her Israel video, Bachmann never referred to a “two-state solution” even though polling shows that is the peace process outcome most U.S. Jews favor.

“When you have a candidate taking more militant positions on the peace process than the Israeli government, it doesn’t serve Israel well,” he said.

Steve Hunegs, the director of the Jewish Community Relations Council in Minnesota, says Bachmann has been sensitive to Jewish issues.

“She is seen as accessible to the community,” he said, “as being fervently pro-Israel and having good personal relations with many people in the community.”

In 2009, during the health care debate, national Jewish organizations decried activists in the Tea Party who likened health care reform to Nazi tactics. Many Republicans pushed back, saying that the media was overplaying the comments of a few marginal activists.

Bachmann, a Tea Party leader, earned Jewish kudos by taking on the Nazi imagery directly.

“Sadly, some individuals chose to marginalize tragic events in human history, such as the Holocaust, by invoking imagery and labels which have no purpose in a policy debate about health care,” she said.

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