AT FIRST, THEY came as something of a surprise. I would open the envelope and stare at the letter, wondering whether I should respond thoughtfully or just write back something like "drop dead." In the end, I did neither. In the end, there were too many letters and I made no attempt to answer. I didn't know what to say to them. I'm talking about anti-Semites.

The letters started coming in soon after I began writing a column. Maybe it had something to do with my name being in large type -- I don't know. I do know, though, that once the column started, so, too, did the hate mail. Most of the letters were scurrilous -- the usual obscenities, underlined words, terms written in red ink, words capitalized for emphasis. Usually, there was either no signature or some sort of title -- "A True American," for instance.

Most of the letters were like that, but there were some that came typed, nicely typed, and written on nice stationery, the classy stuff that bears the imprint of a fine store. One came from Ohio and was written by a doctor's wife. It had been dictated to his secretary. No matter what form the letter took, certain phrases always were present -- such as "people like you" and "you people." This really surprised me. I never thought of myself as speaking for anyone but myself -- certainly not Jews or the Jewish community. But I got enough of these letters to give me some pause. All of a sudden, I had a responsibility. Suddenly, I had been made a spokesman.

So it was with that in mind that I wrote a column during the so-called siege of Washington. I wrote what I thought, but I wrote carefully, gingerly, bearing in mind that the Hanafi terrorists might not read me just as a nobody of a columnist, but as a Jewish columnist. Like some of the letter writers, the Hanafi might see me as a spokesman, and like every journalist writing about the siege I had no desire to have some poor hostage pay for what I had written. I did not in the course of that column refer to the Hanafi gunmen as anti-Semites and I can no longer remember, really, whether I did so out of deference to their guns or because their prejudice did not seem very important at the time. In the first place, it was blatant, obvious, and in the second place my letter-writing friends had left me a bit jaded. I was hearing nothing new.

But the fact of the matter is that no one has bothered since to call the Hanafis what they are --anti-Semites. I don't think it's a term even they would dispute. They had some foul things to say during the siege and they were in the B'nai B'rith building in the first place because of an anti-Semitic logic that convinced them Jews were somehow responsible for their situation. Later came more anti-Semitic diatribes and more statements. All of this has caused precious little excitement.

Instead, the Hanafis have been treated like members in good standing of the Washington religious community. They have been interviewed, understood, analyzed and felt sorry for. No one refers to them as anti-Semites, as a hate group or any of the terms that are routinely trotted out for groups that espouse, say, racism. In fact, no one seems to get upset. No one takes offense. The rhetoric does nothing to diminish the Hanafis' credibility. It was as if the anti-Semitism of the Hanafis was either to be expected or beside the point -- nothing to get excited about.

What you seem to have is a sort of condition --maybe environment is the better word -- where anti-Semitism is not so much approved, as understood and tolerated. The thinking goes that with certain groups it sort of comes along with the rest of the baggage -- like bad grammar or something. It's nothing to be proud of, but no great shame, either. It just is. So the other day, this newspaper interviewed someone named Abdul Sali, a Hanafi. It was an interesting interview, but it contained some foul anti-Semitic statements that went totally unrefuted in the story. It resulted, as it should have, in protests from numbers of people.

But the interesting thing to me is not that. The Post printed the story or that Sali was allowed to have his say, but rather that neither the reporter nor the editor nor the copy-editor who wrote the headline saw anything particularly noteworthy in the anti-Semitic statements. Nothing was said about it in the headline or the beginning of the article or, for that matter, until pretty much near the end of the story. In other words, it was not news.

I don't mean to single out this one article. I chose it only because it is yet another example of anti-Semitism being treated as part of the landscape -- some minor defect in the person being interviewed, like acne or something. Well, the fact of the matter is that it's hate and there is no such thing as an acceptable level of hate or just a little bit of hate. Don't take my word for it.

Ask the hostages at the B'nai B'rith building.