WASHINGTON (JTA) – Rep. Michele Bachmann has incurred the wrath of leading Jewish groups and some Republican leaders, even though she may be one of Israel’s staunchest defenders in Congress and one of its best-known Republicans.
The reaction was spurred by the Minnesota congresswoman’s call for an inquiry into allegations that Huma Abedin, a top aide to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, had ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Some of the toughest condemnations of Bachmann have come from major Jewish groups.
The allegations, and the apparent split among some in the Republican leadership over whether to denounce them, underscore a return in recent years to scapegoating “outsiders,” according to the Jewish leaders who slammed Bachmann for launching what they called a “witch hunt.”
“It’s likes someone who says there’s a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world,” Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, said in a JTA interview. “And then they say prove it’s not true. What proof can you bring to ideologues who want to believe it’s true?”
Saperstein’s July 17 statement was the first among Jewish leaders to deplore Bachmann’s call — and one of the toughest.
“I am deeply troubled by the allegations made by Rep. Michelle Bachmann and other Members of Congress in letters to the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, Defense and State asserting that respected government officials and religious organizations are connected to the Muslim Brotherhood,” he wrote. “The letters assert that Huma Abedin, Deputy Chief of Staff to Secretary Clinton, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), and ISNA President Imam Mohammed Magid are all connected to the Muslim Brotherhood, posing a potential security risk to the United States.
“The Reform Movement, and I personally, have worked with Ms. Abedin, Imam Magid and ISNA for many years,” he continued. “All have worked on behalf of U.S. interests at home and abroad, built relationships across religious lines and affirmed U.S. constitutional values.”
His statement challenged Bachmann and the others who joined her in calling for an inquiry – Reps. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) and Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) – to put up or shut up.
“I hope that Rep. Bachmann and the other signatories will either produce credible evidence that substantiates their claims or withdraw them and do no further damage to the level of public discourse through the dissemination of unsubstantiated and harmful claims,” Saperstein wrote.
Joining Saperstein were the Anti-Defamation League, which accused the lawmakers of “stereotyping and prejudice,” and interfaith umbrella bodies that included among their numbers other Jewish defense and religious groups, including the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the community’s public policy umbrella.
A number of Republican leaders also slammed Bachmann and rose to Abedin’s defense, among them Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the 2008 GOP candidate for president, and Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Boehner said Abedin had a “sterling” character and called the accusations “dangerous.”
Ed Rollins, who managed Bachmann’s failed bid for the GOP presidential nomination, even called her attack “dishonest” in an Op-Ed for the Fox News Channel website.
Clinton, Abedin’s boss, in her first comments addressing the issue on Monday, singled out Bachmann’s Republican critics for praise in an address announcing the release of her department’s annual report on religious freedom.
“Leaders have to be active in stepping in and sending messages about protecting the diversity within their countries,” she said. “And frankly I don’t see enough of that, and I want to see more of it. I want to see more of it, and we did see some of that in our own country. We saw Republicans stepping up and standing up against the kind of assaults that really have no place in our politics.”
Others among Republican leaders, however, rose to Bachmann’s defense. Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker who this year vied for the Republican presidential nomination, dubbed the lawmakers the “national security five” in an Op-Ed for Politico and said they were profiles in courage.
Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House majority leader and the only Jewish Republican in Congress, broke with Boehner and refused to condemn Bachmann, saying in a July 27 appearance on CBS that the congresswoman’s “concern was about the security of the country.”
Bachmann, who has said she is only seeking answers, is basing her questions mostly on the writings of Frank Gaffney, the president of the American Center for Security Policy and a top Pentagon official during the Reagan administration.
Gaffney, who has made it his mission to expose what he says is creeping Islamism in the American establishment, has tied Abedin to the Muslim Brotherhood through second-hand citations that allege she has family members affiliated with the group.
Abedin is married to former Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), who resigned last year in a sexting scandal. As a congressman, Weiner, who is Jewish, had close ties to conservative pro-Israel groups, including the Zionist Organization of America.
Gaffney also has ties to conservative pro-Israel groups and websites, and Bachmann is a favorite of pro-Israel groups for her strident support for the country. She was a star at the 2011 American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference and in her youth spent a year in Israel working on a kibbutz.
Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, said such accusations gain traction as a tight presidential election nears.
“As they get closer to the election and as the results look close, you see a lot more activity and some of the activity gets close to the line, if it doesn’t cross the line,” he said.
James Zogby, the director of the Arab American Institute, said the economic downturn and President Obama’s background and race have nurtured a “path of xenophobia predicated on economic distress.”
Saperstein said Bachmann’s attacks were of a piece with depictions of Obama as a dangerous foreigner that he said were moving from the Republican margins to the mainstream.
“There are a few things we’re seeing a convergence of,” he said, noting “the Islamophobic effort to discredit and delegitimize the Muslim community, the effort to discredit president Obama.”
Zogby said he was especially nonplussed at an attack on Obama by John Sununu, a chief of staff to President George H.W. Bush and a surrogate for presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. In a July 17 interview with Fox News Channel, Sununu said that Obama did not understand “how the American system works.” To explain this, Sununu emphasized the several years that Obama spent as a child in Indonesia. (Sununu later said he was not questioning Obama’s Americanness.)
“I was bewildered that would come from him,” said Zogby, noting that Sununu, as an American of Palestinian descent, has weathered similar attacks.
Foxman said citations of religious and ethnic origin were on the rise, and that neither party was immune. He cited attacks by some liberals and evangelicals on the Mormon beliefs of Romney.
“When Obama first ran there was a lot of up-to-the-edge racism,” he said. “Now we’re seeing it with Romney and Mormonism.”
Rabbi Marc Schneier, a co-founder of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, which promotes Jewish-Muslim cooperation, said there was a utility in the escalation of the anti-Muslim rhetoric.
“Because the issues are brought to the fore, they become part of the American conversation,” he said. “That is a necessary evil if we are going to move forward.”