An Interfaith Friendship Frayed

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For nearly half a century, few interfaith relationships have been sturdier than that between Jews and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Forged after the Holocaust and during the civil rights movement, the amity reached a high point in 1987, when a Presbyterian "study document" acknowledged the Jews' ongoing and legitimate covenant with God.

Yet a sense of betrayal is building among Jewish groups over two votes at the Presbyterians' recent General Assembly. The first tally sustained funding for "Messianic Jewish" congregations like Avodat Yisrael, a Philadelphia-area Presbyterian gathering that meets Saturdays and gives every appearance of being a synagogue but features New Testament readings. Most Jews consider such entities, often funded by conservative Christian groups, to be a devious way of luring new converts to Christianity. The second vote initiated the church's "phased selective divestment" from some corporations operating in Israel.

Many Jewish leaders regard the two measures as a double-barreled assault on their faith and the Jewish state. Says interfaith veteran Rabbi James Rudin: "They turn back much of the achievement of the last 40 years." But the resolutions actually reflect two different--and mutually hostile--constituencies. The divestment was backed by the liberal Presbyterian majority, which traditionally tempers its affirmation of Israel's right to exist with concern for Palestinian welfare. The margin for continuing Messianic funding was provided by an increasingly powerful evangelical minority. Some church activists seem honestly taken aback by the two measures being linked in controversy. It is, says conservative leader the Rev. Parker Williamson, "a disjunction, almost like frying ice." But apparently even fried ice can exert a chill. --By David Van Biema