At first glance, it would seem to have been an unlikely gathering. On one side of the Blair House drawing room, seated on the antique chairs and nodding politely, were eight evangelical Christian ministers, some of them champions of television time religion. On the other chairs sat Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Israel's ambassador to the United States, Ephraim Evron, and an aide or two.
"I worship a Jew," said Rev. Dr. James Kennedy during the half-hour meeting, in the process of explaining the fundamentalists' affinity for Israel. "I love Him supremely amongst all things . . . Jesus Christ loves you," he told Begin, who promptly invited them all to visit Israel as his personal guests.
The meeting was arranged by Rev. Jerry Falwell of Lynchburg, Va., and the Israeli Embassy. Falwell, who heads the 16,000-member Thomas Road Baptist Church and its broadcast adjunct, the Old Time Gospel Hour, has in years past collected money to plant a forest in Israel, and has visited there three times.
Although Falwell ran into trouble last year when he made what he said later was a joking remark about Jews at an "I Love America" rally in Richmond (a Jew, he said, "can make more money accidentally than you can on purpose") he, like the other "Bible believing Christians" represented at the meeting with Begin, believes the Bible says that Israel has a historical and theological right to exist.
"I'm very glad of this," Begin interjected jokingly at one point.
"We are different from the Christians who persecuted Jews in the Middle Ages," said Rev. Kennedy. "We have ourselves been persecuted."
The scene at Blair House was all love and brotherhood. After the ministers spoke of their commitment to Israel, Begin, as is his wont, launched into a 15-minute discourse, prompted by the question: "What can we do that would encourage you?" from Dr. Charles Stanley of the First Baptist Church in Atlanta, Ga.
"Thank you for asking that question," Begin began.
Then, with the ministers leaning forward, straining to understand his accented English and soft voice, Begin talked about how he too quoted the Bible, which, he said "is not old stuff . . . it is a book of life and light."
He talked about the history of persecution against Jews, occassionally raising his hands and shrugging his shoulders in a classic gesture of incredulity. "We have suffered enough," he said. "Let us live in peace . . . You want to sacrifice us again as we were sacrificed to Hitler?"
The ministers, most of them dressed in blue suits, sat attentively, some holding coffee cups, two others occasionally scribbing notes for the "Moral Majority Report" and the "Baptist Bible Tribune." At one point, thinking Begin had finished, one of them started to say something. "Let me finish," Begin continued congenially.
"You would not find this group agreeing on everything," said Rev. Adrian Rogers of Memphis, of the coalition of ministers. "But we believe that Israel has the right not only biblically but historically and legally to the land of Israel and the nations of the world have the responsibility to secure your borders."
Rogers is president of the Southern Baptist Convention. "Isn't that what President Carter belongs to?" Begin said when they were introduced. "Yes," Rogers said, "Please bring him my greetings when you see him."
Underneath the public avowals of a holy alliance, there was a clear public relations value for the Israelis as well as the evangelical ministers.
"I will report (to the president) of this meeting with you, dear friends," said Begin," . . . to prove to him that not only the Jewish population supports our stand."
Evangelists now claim to outnumber "mainstream" Christians in the U.S., and have marshaled to their advantage the influence of television in hundreds of broadcasts every week.
In addition, both the Zionists and the Evangelists are miffed at the National Council of Churches. Jewish groups have denounced a council executive committee suggestion that the U.S. should talk to the Palestine Liberation Organization, and boycotted meetings the council held this year in the process of developing a Middle East policy.
"The vast majority of quote-unquote Christians in America are evangelical," Falwell said. "Our members far exceed the more liberal National Council of Churches which is moving toward an anti-Israel position."
"We just want you to know who you're talking to," interjected another minister.
(A spokesman for the National Council of Churches in New York said the organization has not voted to advocate U.S.-P.L.O. relations, but does believe that Palestine as well as Israel, has a right to exist as a "sovereign entity." A source at a national Jewish organization countered: "Generally the N.C.C. is susceptible to third-world propaganda influences.")
The meeting ended as Falwell read a letter to Begin that said, "We proclaim that the Land of Israel encompasses Judea and Samaria as integral parts of the Jewish patrimony, with Jerusalem its one and indivisible capital . . . Israel stands as a bulwark of strength and determination against those, who by terror and blackmail, threaten our democratic way of life."
Or, he continued, as God said to Joshua as he prepared to cross the River Jordan, "Be strong and of a good courage . . . for the Lord thy God is with thee withersoever thou goest."
"Rak chazak," Begin replied in Hebrew. "Be strong."