Television evangelist Pat Robertson tried to allay Jewish fears about his possible presidential candidacy Thursday by telling Los Angeles Jewish leaders that he is a staunch supporter of Israel and a "dear friend" of many Jews.
Robertson said that he supports the separation of church and state, despite his Christian fundamentalist background. He added that evangelists have a "common shared unity with Jews" and a commitment to religious freedom.
"I know that many of you are concerned about these evangelicals," Robertson, the head of the multimillion-dollar Christian Broadcast Network, told the group. "(But) evangelicals are committed to religious freedom and have a love of the Jews. . . . I'm not interested in the intrusion of government in people's lives. I'm interested in freedom and liberty."
Robertson's message was politely received by the audience of about 150 people at the Jewish Federation Council's West Los Angeles office.
Most seemed intrigued by Robertson's cordial manner but some, including Rabbi BenTzion Kravitz, director of Jews for Judaism in Los Angeles, said Robertson dodged serious questions about differences in faith between Christians and Jews.
Kravitz said he remains concerned about Robertson's presidential candidacy. He called Robertson vague and said the minister had skirted some major issues.
"I thought he was very forthright in his statement of principles," said Howard Miller, the chairman of the federation's community relations committee. "He clearly tried to talk in terms favorable to the audience. I don't know if he earned any supporters. But there were people who were impressed."
The Jewish community in Los Angeles, well-organized and politically active, is courted by candidates from all parts of the political spectrum. Robertson, whom aides describe as a Christian businessman rather than an evangelist, has not committed to the 1988 presidential race. But his participation in the federation's presidential hopefuls forum was seen as another sign that he is seriously considering the race.
The "televangelist," as he has been called, is a Virginia Republican with a strong fundamentalist base. Robertson has said that he will run for President if 3 million people sign petitions supporting his candidacy. On Thursday, he said that he is not actively seeking the presidency. But he added that he is actively seeking the 3 million signatures and expects to decide this fall.
Thursday's meeting provided the Southern Baptist minister with his first opportunity to address a large Jewish gathering. And the lively audience quizzed Robertson on everything from modern life to the afterlife.
Several audience members wanted to know if Robertson believes Jews could go to heaven. In a lengthy and circuitous reply, Robertson indicated that Jewish people could make it to heaven if they abide by the 10 Commandments.
"I don't think there's any question that Jews are specially chosen," Robertson said. "Yes, I believe the access of Jews to God is certainly open."
Robertson stressed that he is totally committed to Israel. "Israel must have secure borders," Robertson said. "My commitment to Israel is not based on military considerations. My commitment is from the heart, not the head."
Asked about school prayer, Robertson said people should be allowed to say their prayers privately. He did not say whether he would try to enforce such a law.
One of Robertson's strongest stands came on abortion. The minister called abortion "slaughter" and said that the national law that permits abortions is "bad." Robertson added that the states should be allowed to individually address the issue.