PARIS -- Marek Halter is not comfortable defending the war in the Persian Gulf. It goes against the grain. Indeed, as a moralist who has invested a lifetime in peace, dialogue and understanding, few positions put him more ill at ease.

"I am not proud to defend a war; it's not natural for me," Halter says. "For me the supreme value is not peace but justice -- it's an old Judeo-Christian value. Peace can also be the peace of the cemetery. But I also know that from the moment we decide to do it {the war}, we must do it quickly, and we must propose something that is just to come afterward."

Uneasy or otherwise, this patient man of shaggy skull and beard (it's the first thing you notice) and eyes filled with a gentle wisdom (that's the second thing) must be among the best qualified to defend a conflict that he, like most others, did not want.

His qualifications come from possessing that rare luxury of human qualities: consistency. Unlike most of the rest of the world, he was there to protest against the gassing of the Iraqi Kurds. He has long fought actively and evenhandedly for a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli problem. Most recently he called on King Hussein to abdicate and hand Jordan over to the Palestinians; the reasoning is typically Halter: The king, in Halter's presence, promised to make peace with Israel and has not. Halter takes it personally.

Though barely known in the United States, Halter is one of Europe's best-known figures in East and West; a voice for morality and memory. A writer and lecturer by trade, he is on a first-name basis with half a dozen heads of state for whom he serves as an ethical reference and sidekick. When French President Francois Mitterrand wants to stress a principle, he brings Halter along, as on a trip to Poland several years ago. When Lech Walesa allows antisemitic supporters to speak out, Halter tells him, "Lech, you're over the top."

For more than 20 years Halter has spoken out for Andre Sakharov and Soviet Jews, and for missing people under Argentina's military dictatorship; he has explained the role of punishment, guilt and memory in postwar Germany -- in short, he has chosen most causes that might concern your basic left-leaning, Holocaust-surviving bleeding Jewish heart.

War is definitely something new.

The debate over the war among Paris intellectuals -- a veritable class unto themselves -- and Halter's taking a stance are primarily the result of the anti-war movement in France. Prominent among the pacifists are his former colleagues, or more precisely, his godchildren from SOS Racisme, an anti-racist group whose creation he helped to inspire. But now he has split with SOS Racisme, which has taken a new name, Peace Now, and called for an immediate end to the war.

In France, this is more complicated than it seems. The agenda for the anti-racist movement had been twofold: to defend the Arab immigrant community from racism and the Jewish community from antisemitism. While the two communities had worked together in the past, they are now bitterly divided over the war: The sympathies of the Arab community lie largely with Iraq, while the Jewish community is enraged by Iraq's missile attacks against Israel.

Halter is not the only one to criticize SOS Racisme; several others, including the prominent French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levi, have resigned from the group. But he was the first to declare its demise. "SOS Racisme is dying in the gulf," he wrote in Le Monde in January. "Born in the high schools several years ago, it was open to all. Its objective was to fight racism in France which, through its political and religious cleavages, had brought in its wake a generation that sought a bit more justice. ... Their support today for the most tiresome Communist theses and their complicity -- if involuntary -- with {extreme nationalist} Jean Marie Le Pen revolts me."

Harlem Desir, head of both SOS Racisme and the anti-war movement, insists that the war is unnecessary and that, given time, the embargo would have sufficed to achieve Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait.

But he is juggling a complex message that draws attention and credibility away from the fight against racism. Desir opposes the war but also rejects the resulting division between Arab and Jew in France; he supports the embargo, but does not necessarily reject the linkage of the gulf crisis to resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian problem.

Amid this polemic Halter, as so often in the past, is able to think and speak clearly.

"The pacifists are putting peace forward as an absolute value; precluding even justice. I disagree. Justice is more important than peace," he says, proceeding to pick apart the pacifist argument:

"It is absurd to talk embargoes with a character such as Saddam Hussein. It is unjust to walk away from one violation of international law just because the world has ignored other violations of international law. One cannot compare Israel's occupation of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, captured during a war launched against it, with Iraq's invasion and annexation of a friendly neighboring country. Other inequities, such as the Palestinian problem, must be dealt with once the gulf war is over.

"We are waging a war that is just, but it would be much more justified if we had clear ideas for the postwar period: How to solve the Palestinian problem. How to distribute more justly the wealth of the region. What sort of regime for Iraq? For Kuwait? What framework will there be for regional relations? A conference for regional disarmament?

"Unfortunately, this just war was badly prepared. Bush and the Europeans underestimated the Iraqis. You must never underestimate the enemy. When {Secretary of State James} Baker met {Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq} Aziz in Geneva and he put that letter on the table -- it was like a challenge to them. When the Europeans asked Aziz to come to Strasbourg, it was as if they were inviting Ava Gardner to come and speak. It was a complete underestimation."

Spoken, the words sound less bellicose than their meaning imports. Halter has a simple, nonjudgmental way of reminding people what it means to be civilized. Unlike Elie Wiesel, with whom he often shares a podium, his manner is sympathetic rather than tragic; Halter explores the future, rather than mining humanity's dark past. And with his gently rasping voice -- rrrrs that nudge the listener with subtle Yiddish undertones -- his presence more often evinces thanks and a nod than a pestered flick of the hand.

"Man isn't good or bad, he has certain impetuses," Halter says in a later conversation in his studio in Paris's medieval Marais neighborhood. Books line one wall. Windows line the other. Low-growing gray hair and a full beard lend the writer a rabbinical look. Halter looks -- in a tweed jacket, an old gray sweater and even older brown leather boots -- as though he could as easily be seated in the last century as the present one.

"Nature has no scruples. Knowledge of the Ten Commandments -- like 'respect your parents' -- these are not normal. Normalcy is wanting to kill the next guy. I have a permanent consciousness of this evil, so I am more aware of it than others. But this idea of peace, of respecting one another -- that is work.

"You cannot change human nature. You can only protect man from his own nature. This is as old as the Bible: Cain killed Abel. We must constantly remember this, because it's a lesson. History is a spiral: At any given moment we are at the same time, on the same level, as people 200 or 300 years ago, but at the same time we've progressed."

Born in Poland in 1936, Halter saw his family interned by Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto; Marek was 3 1/2. The family escaped by crawling out through the ghetto's sewer system, and fled to the Soviet Union. Known as Communist sympathizers, his printer-writer-poet parents were adopted rather than arrested by the Soviets. After a period of moving around the Soviet Union, Halter and his parents advanced with the Red Army back toward Poland, and entered liberated Warsaw.

Somewhere during that period, Halter realized that his talent lay in telling stories. "This saved my life during the war," he says. "You know, my little sister died of hunger. When I was 9 I became a member of a street gang in Kokand {near the Soviet-Afghan border}. There I learned three things -- one, that I told stories well. They used to call me 'Marek the talented tale-teller.' We were young children who lived by violence, who attacked other people for food, but I learned that they dreamed of other things. Of a life that was more respectful, of love. And I told them of this life, a life where men were not only bad, of the conquistadors, of Vasco da Gama.

"The third lesson was that in this world we tend to solve our problems with knives. Before they would get into a fight they talked, they disagreed, they would yell and insult each other. And the one who had no more arguments to make would strike first. Violence begins where discussion ends. When people have no more ways of expressing themselves, they use violence.

"This has marked my whole life; I have tried in every language" -- he speaks seven -- "to be calm before violence, to speak even to enemies."

This is why he is willing, unwillingly, to support this war. He believes that discussion had reached its limit, and the challenge posed by the Iraqi leader too great to ignore. "The public does not really understand the stakes of this war. This is not just about Saddam," he says. "Montaigne said that when you judge a criminal, it is not the criminal alone that you judge, but all the other would-be criminals. To punish one dictator is to discourage other dictators.

"None of this is very pretty. That's for sure," he admits. "But you know, we don't live in a pretty world. And this is the proof."