By the rivers of Babylon, There we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps, Upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song, and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion." How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land? If I forget thee O Jerusalem, Let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth If I prefer not Jerusalem above may chief joy. -- Psalm 137

Mel Galun, the associate executive director of the Zionist Organization of America, carries himself with an easy confident manner that belies a life whose first few years were spent hiding from the Nazis in the forests of Germany and Poland. Living with his mother first in huts made of branches and holes in the ground and later in the refugee camps of Europe, he never knew his father. His father died in a concentration camp.

Galun, who is 40 now, came to America when he was 8 years old. By then he was already a Zionist. "I had read everything I could about Palestine and the fighting going on against the British," he says. "In my fantasies, the homeland was freedom, it was manhood, it was sunshine. It was everything I didn't have."

He was taking a moment's break to explain the kind of dreams that fed many of the delegates who had come to the 82nd national ZOA convention which ended Sunday at the Capitol Hilton. There had been much to discuss: the bombing of the synagogue in Paris, the recent attempt in the U.N. to deny Israel its seat, the nearly unanimous sentiment that all the talk of anti-Zionism was merely a codeword for the virulence of anti-Semitism. "The events in France show no sign whatsoever of being an isolated event," said Yehuda Hellman, the executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. "Anti-Zionism is simply anti-Semitism. An attack on Israel is an attack on every Jew in the world."

The intensity leapt like electricity in the eyes of the young, its current carried in the voices of the old. Hope itself seemed suspended at times between the terrible memories of the past and the fragility of the future. Young and old, they are Zionists, and while even the very definition of the word was debated at times during the four-day conference, the commitment never was.

But there were other issues less easy to delineate. The position of American Zionists can be a tricky one at times, caught as they are between the highest aim of Zionism, the return to Israel, the "in-gathering of the exiles," and their love of this country and their life here. Many of the American elders of the movement argued for the "acceptance of the Diaspora," of the fact that there would always be Jews living outside Israel and that their work was important and their voices should be heard in the councils of the country they referred to as "our child whom we protect in every way."

But there were European-born elders of the organization as well at the convention, veterans who had worked with Begin and the others at the birth of the Israeli state who argued eloquently that what was needed were cadres of young American Jews making their aliya , or emigration to Israel, to shore up the frontiers.

And there were the young Zionists themselves, caught between reality and ideals, the deferring of dreams, the getting on with life.

When Mel Galun graduated from college, his mother gave him his choice of a graduation gift -- a used car or a trip to Israel. He took the trip and got his first look at the country he had dreamed of for so long. "The country -- how can I describe how I felt?" he asks. "It's not a new state, it's a renewed state. Suddenly you link up with your past."

Why then, as an ardent Zionist, didn't he emigrate? He pauses for a moment. "You come to this country, you strike roots. I have roots as well in Israel -- real emotional roots as well as family ties. It would certainly be easier to bring up my kid Jewish there. I talk to my daughter about Zionism, but many of her friends aren't even Jewish. And it does something for the individual to live there. Obviously, there's a lot that draws me to that country."

And yet -- "I'm happy here. It's not just materialistic comfort. I have a lot of feeling for this country." Also, there is the question of values, of an American heritage whose emphasis on the individual contrasts in varied ways with the many communal aspects of Israeli life. He envies the Israelis some of their characteristics, he says, "but it's not me. Someday, I still may choose to go. It's a struggle, I want you to know that. But I don't think all Jews have to go to Israel. Even after the Babylonian exile, they didn't all go back."

Then, there will come that spendid day whose advent was prophesied by Isaiah in his fiery and poetic words of consolation. Then the Jews, if necessary with arms in their hands, will publicly proclaim themselves masters of their own, ancient fatherland. It does not matter if that splendid day will come in fifty years' time or more. A period of fifty years is no more than a moment of time for such an undertaking.

-- Ze'ev Dubnov to his brother Shim'on, the historian, 1882. From "The Origins of Zionism" by David Vital.

Adeline Fremland remembers so well that splendid day when it finally came in November 1947. "First we went to the temple, of course," she says, "and then there were the celebrations, oh, how we celebrated." She remembers thinking how wonderful it was to contemplate then that the next time St. Paul, Minn., held its day of ethnic celebration, the Jewish community could enter the tableaux of nations as a country. "Before then, you know, the light would go on and there would be Moses, holding the Ten Commandments -- what else could we do? We had no country, no treasures."

She is 69 now, her white hair as snowy as the north country surrounding the small town in Minnesota where she was born. She grew up with the dream. "There wasn't a Jewish home, honey, that didn't have a blue and white box in it, the one where you put the contributions for Palestine. My grandmother had such a box in Russia, and if all she had to put in was a kopek, well, then that's what she put in. But it was a dream then, honey, that's all it was something that would happen if not for me, then for my children, and if not for them, then for my grandchildren. Three times a day you prayed, 'Next year, may we be in Jerusalem.'"

She remembers the men in her community packing guns in with the tractor parts and sending them to the kibbutzim "so they would be able to protect themselves. But you didn't expect to get there.You didn't know what it would be like. When I imagined it, I would think that it would be as if all the walls would finally come down."

She has been to Israel with her husband, Joseph, six times now, and she would like to go back for her 70th birthday. Together they have watched in wonder as the countryside homes fill with flowers on a Friday afternoon, and looked in horror at the gravestones of Israeli heroes thrown in the mud by enemy soldiers and used as a path to the latrine -- "such a desecration, honey, you have never seen."

They watched the country grow, she says, but "I was born 30 years too late.

We could help out, but we couldn't move there. Now it's hard for the young people even to imagine not having an Israel. If only the rest of the world would leave Israel alone." And yes, she too feels that anti-Zionism is only another word for anti-Semitism. "People forget," she says. "It starts with the Jews and then it continues. It wasn't only Jews in the Holocaust. The knock that came in the middle of the night didn't come just for the Jews."

When God returned us to Zion, we were as dreamers. -- From the Psalms.

David Stiefel is 24, and the wrapping has barely been torn away from the gift of his future. It lies there, bright and bewildering, before him. A past president of the Masada youth movement, he grew up Zionist. "It kind of filled a hole in my life," he says. "To me, it was Judaism made modern. Judaism for me is more nationalism than religion. It's the sense of one people, nationalism in its purest form."

He does not, he says, "count aliya out of my future: Aliya is the highest manifestation of the Jew in the Diaspora. It's the highest, but it's not the only one.I'm just not sure. Judaism would not be worth anything without Israel. But I'm afraid to go alone. I don't want to live on a kibbutz. You'd like everyone to go, but that's just not very realistic."

In his voice can be heard the sincere and perplexing ambiguity of this tension between the expression of commitment and the form it takes, the fear that a dream that could die at the hands of a clock. "Life kind of takes you along," Stiefel says. "In my high school I was so fired up, I said, 'I'm going to go now.' My Mom says, 'Wait until you go to college,' and I did. Then I started my career and it means a lot to me and I thought, 'I'll wait a little longer.' Then you say, 'Well, Israel is where I want to raise my family.' Now my great fear is that I'll find a girl I want to marry and she won't want to go there. And I'll love her and know she's the one. And so I'll stay."

The light has faded, the Sabbath is over, and Stiefel goes off in search of the cigarettes that were forbidden until sundown. "Reality," he says. "It sure has a way of getting in the way of ideals."