A SKINNY LADY in Tel Aviv - widowed in the guerilla attrition action after 1967, and a son dead in a tank in October 1973, and this is a familiar story - was the first person I met who made a distinction which has become common in Israel in recent years. "Do we have a Masada Complex?" she asked. "No. The world make a mistake if they think such."

The story of the Masada, the Jews who resisted against the Romans until all had perished, is a popular legend. The mountain and a desert fortress of Masada has been lovingly restored, and visitors are awed by the genius and concentration which led these martyrs, "defenders of Jewish freedom," to fight off the Roman siege. Some Israelis and other Jews like to think of themselves as descendants of those who defended Masada: but this is mere sentiment. The plain fact is that these heroes had no living descendants. Before they were finally overwhelmed, they took their own lives.

Said the lady in Tel Aviv; "On the contrary, what we have is a Samson complex. If the Temple is pulled down, it will not be convenient for anyone."

She suggests the basic lesson of these two lengthy studies of the Jewish people, of Zionism, and of Israel. Survival, and survival with dignity, is the integrating principle which runs through this history. It may have been odd of God to choose the Jews, but they will not let Him go back on His choice. In our time the eloquence of the Jewish voice in the world has been supplemented by something new in Jewish history - the nuclear reactors in Dimona. When I visited Dimona, and noticed the handsome villas and well-tended gardens of engineers, scientists, physicists, skilled technical people, in a town built on desert sands only a few years ago, I asked the mayor:

"What do all these people do?"

"They work hard," he said.

I'm writing this from Haiti, a lost black nation long isolated from the world by colar and poverty, and crippled by its history despite the bizarre collection of talents with which it has enriched the world. And I remember Biafra, in whose agonized death struggle I participated - another people, the Ibos, whose vision and talents met a crushing end. Biafra no longer exists; Haiti is a permanent despair to those who love it. No matter how talented, energetic, and brilliant they are, small peoples need to find a means to win their rights by power. Sacrifice and right are not enough. I'll not forget the soldiers chanting, "Biafra Will Live! Biafra Will Live!" and he tender, poignant celebration near Ihiala of the second anniversary of Biafran independence. But Biafra did not live. And the words, "Haiti Perle des Antilles ," on Haitian license plates, have to be read with irony.

Is it bragging to say that Jewish history has been one of the champions in the tragedy sweepstakes? Not unique, but undeniably exceptional. Jews can speak as brothers to Haitians, Ibos, Armenians, American Indians; but in fact, the world is now preoccupied with one characteristic off the Jewish people the overshadows all the others.

Survival, a persistence in survival, a stubborn ingenuity and courage in survival. Why this should have happened is a puzzle to the world and to the Jews besides. It is even a characteristic of Jewish humor, both is Diaspora and in Israel. Jews believe, despite all their spiritual yearnings, that salvation comes on earth, in history, not after death and in heaven. The joke has the rabbi saying, when he hears that a new flood will cover the world in 40 days: "Jews! You have 40 days to learn how to breathe under water!"

These two books, useful compendiums, together about 2000 pages of text, comprise a miniature library, scholarly, complete and excellently detailed. I read them as a parisan, not as a reviewer. A writer friend in San Francisco thinks I am an "Israeli agent" because I visit Israel frequently. He says it to others, not to me; the paranoid fantasies of the not-so-new left provide some of the flavor of intellectual life in northern California, along with the "country-western gay Buddhist Mafia" which another writer friend believes controls the arts in America. If my friend were rational. I would like him to propose his suspicion to me personally,so that I could try to explain this triple energy and loyalty - that a man can be an American, a Jew, and a Zionist, and feel only nourished in all his roles by these loyalties. An incidental virtue of these books is that they help to explain American Jews to themselves. We are in need of our own history, tspecial one, in addition to the one which we share with other Americans.

Howard Sachar describes the dream of Zion that evolved out of nostalgia for memory of the fallen Temple. Jews never lost touch with the Holy, the traffic back and forth never ceasing, Jews never entirely absent; no matter how they were chased, banned, hunted down, some clung to their dwelling place and never left. In the imagination of Diaspora, Zion was a mythic idyll, "the land where the muses dwell, where each flower is a Psalm, each cedar a song divine, each stone a book and each rock a tablet." The literature of love and longing poured out of frozen ghettos: "Let us be like all the other nations, unashamed of the rock whence we have been hewn, like the rest in holding dear our language and the glory of our people." Zionism managed that feat - to hold dear the rock which most Zionists had never seen, to revive the language which, in the early days, few of them spoke. How odd of the Jews to choose this God.

In the 19th century, as Zionism developed, the land was barren. Those who came to dwell among flowers, songs, and stones found swamps and barren desert, typhoid and typhus; Jerusalem was a shrunken village of 17,000 people, ruled by a corrupt Ottoman regime.Pious Jews cowered and worshipped in their ruined courtyards, supported by charity from Europe. A first revival occurred through the paternal auspices of Sir Moses Montefiore, an English financier, who managed dring his 101 years on earth to intercede on behalf of his fellow Jews with czars, sultans, and kings, and to support the beginning of agricultural and artisanal revival among the pious of Zion and the adventurous and obsessed who returned from dispersal. The Montefiore windmill still stands near the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. It is not as ancient as Herod's tomb nearby, but it is surely as important a landmark. In miniature it symbolizes a period of feudal paternalism - Sir Moses as a kind of absentee monarch - which came before the nationalistic and present social-democratic/socialist/capitalistic mixed life-stule, governance, and economy. The Jews have but one God, but irony and complicaton lie within His ken.

A few years ago I accompanied a young Jewish mathematician who had managed the painful exit from the Soviet Union on his first visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The sudden vision, as we left the winding ancient pathways in the Old City, struck him simply dumb. Then he folded his hands in a traditional attitude of prayer and said to me, without taking his eyes from the Wall: I don't believe, I don't believe . . . And yet it is a miracle."

Sachar shows very effectively, with an overwhelming patient accumulation data, how the Zionist farms and settlements and the Zionist dream failed and failed and failed - until they succeeded. It is a mark of the authenticity of this vision that no defeat did anything but prepare the way for the next attempt. This was not merely a national attempt. This was not merely a national masochism, the tree watered by the blood of sacrifice, but a series of experiments and explorations. The direction was never lost. These two books trace the winding road that has led to a not yet final, perhaps not ever final destination.

A few months after I led the Soviet mathematician on his first visit to the Wall, I found myself again in Israel during the October muself again in Israel during the Ocotober War. On one of the last days of the war, when it was clear that another tragic victory had been won, I was driving toward the Golan with Mordecha Schweid, one of those powerful old Israelis - a man who years earlier had organized the famous "Magic Carpet" airlift rescue of the Yemenite Jews. Now in his seventies, he was a skier and a leader of the Israeli hosteling movement. We were heading north. He pointed to a mountain peak nearby and said, "That's Mount Helrmon, and its still in the hands of the Syrians. Too bad, because it's the only place in Israel where there's enough snow for skiing. I doubt if I'll be able to go to Austria or Switzerland this year."

And at the moment, from the natural amphitheater where we stood, the mountain seemed to explode. An Israeli assault team was scrambling up the slope; and air battle was taking place; we could see planes going down in flames, helicopter rescue teams hovering, and the tiny figures of the men fighting and dying for this last important post.

When it was over, the old man turned to me with his eyes filled with tears and said. "I'll be able to ski in Israel this winter."