Jews have a mixed reaction to rising Republican star Michele Bachmann

Michele Bachmann being confronted by two lesbians in a bathroom and screaming for help?

Or Bachmann weeping with joy at the Western Wall, surrounded by Jews?

Where one stands in the political spectrum likely will determine which incident involving Bachmann one would want to highlight.

Actually, supporters of Rep. Bachmann (R-Minn.) — a presidential aspirant in the Republican Party and a tea party favorite — acknowledge that both incidents have their roots 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.”

Republican presidential hopeful Rep. Michele Bachmann speaks July 2 at a tea party rally outside the Iowa State Capitol. photo/ap/des moines register/justin hayworth

It’s been a problem in the past for the 55-year-old congresswoman from eastern Minnesota. Michele Bachmann (neé Amble), who isn’t Jewish, 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 last week.

Bachmann’s impressive performance in the first major GOP debate, held last month at the University of New Hampshire, has vaulted her to the forefront of a crowded Republican field.

Her capacity for self-deprecation helped her ace the June 13 forum. 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.

Trained as a lawyer, she also displayed command of the issues, particularly those relating to her fiscal conservatism.

 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 has ever heard.

Bachmann held a reception after the AIPAC conference in May, drawing bigger crowds than concurrent receptions hosted by Newt Gingrich, who also is running for the GOP presidential nod, and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.

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.

She openly claims a Jewish heritage — basing it on the Jewish roots of Christianity — and her formal candidacy announcement 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.

At age 17, Bachmann was selected to join a group of Minnesota teens spending the summer of 1974 in Israel, working on Kibbutz Be’eri in the Negev.

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.

Bachmann’s district includes two small Jewish communities, but her interest in Israel and in Jews stems more from her upbringing and her beliefs than anything else, her supporters say.

“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 added, 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 liked watching Bachmann fence with his liberal in-laws when she attended his daughter’s bat mitzvah, but he also noted that he disagrees with her 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 the 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.

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.

Ron Kampeas

Ron Kampeas is the D.C. bureau chief at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.