WASHINGTON – Newly declared presidential candidate Michele Bachmann’s dedication to Israel 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’s performance in the first major GOP debate 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.
“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 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.
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 deep Christian beliefs.
“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.”
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 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.
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 her opposition to such issues such as gay rights and abortion.
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.