My phone these days is an instrument of torture. Merely to answer it runs the risk of being insulted. The mail is equally bad. The letters are vicious, some of them quite personal. One person ripped a page out of the Yellow Pages and sent me a listing of psychiatrists. The meaning was clear: I am sick. I have differences with Israel.

It turns out I am this thing called "a self-hating Jew." I am not sure what this is exactly, although the symptoms are clear. A self-hating Jew is not one who hides his identity or acts ashamed of his identity but who, for reasons thought to have to do with mental instability, is critical of Israeli policy.

Whatever a self-hating Jew might be, it turns out it is impossible to be such a thing in Israel itself. There, writers such as Amos Elon can publish articles critical of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and not--as far as I know--be put on the couch to be psychoanalyzed. Instead, it seems, people respect what he says. They might agree or disagree, but they do not think his differences with Menachem Begin have anything to do with his religious identity.

But with American Jews it is a different story. Here dissent becomes treason and treason not to a state or even an ideal (Zionism) but to a people. There is tremendous pressure for conformity, to show a united front and to adopt the view that what is best for Israel is something only the government there can know. For those who do not think that Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon is either wise or moral, there is only the door--go!

Non-Jewish critics of Israel get the flip side of this treatment. They are either dismissed or denounced as anti-Semites. The Washington Post recently failed to do a story about a pro-Israeli rally, then published a picture of that gathering with a caption identifying it as an anti-Israel rally that took place the same day. It was a mistake--nothing more. Many readers saw grave matters of policy in it, though. Some saw it as yet another example of anti-Semitism.

There is nothing particularly mysterious about this. For many American Jews, the identification with Israel is intense. To find Israel morally lacking is not much different than finding Jews morally lacking. In addition, many Jews have a sense that they and Israel are walking on eggs, that the slightest slip, the slightest relaxation of vigilance, will bring on yet another holocaust--this one maybe in the Middle East. The emotional if not the actual stakes are awfully high.

But in some cases it has produced a kind of intolerance that has taken a toll. American politicians, cowed by such intense feeling and therefore unwilling to criticize Israel, nevertheless are seething. They do not like being pushed around--not by Jews, not by Arabs, not by anyone. American newspapers, stung when mistakes are likened to anti-Semitic acts, tend after a while to reject all criticism.

The situation in the Middle East is not simple. There is room to argue, room for debate. There is reason to question whether the course of the present Israeli government is the best course for Israel. For the American Jewish community--or the most vociferous segments of it--to reject criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic is plain insulting to the many people who simply have differences with Israeli policy.

To criticize the bombing of civilian centers is not anti-Semitism. To question the morality of a near-total war is not anti-Semitism. To point out that the Israeli government is no longer credible is not anti-Semitism nor is it anti-Semitism to suggest that the American Jewish community runs the risk of being ignored when it only has only one response to criticism of Israel--and that is to shout "anti-Semite!"

In a world full of anti-Semites, it is folly to manufacture more out of whole cloth. In a world that is menacing for both Jews and Israelis, it is folly to turn friends into enemies or not to distinguish between the two. In a world in which there are plenty of people who hate Jews, it is ridiculous to manufacture a whole new category out of nothing more than criticism of the Begin government.

Nothing could be worse for Israel in the long run than for its friends not to distinguish between when it is right and when it is wrong. That, after all, is what its enemies have done for years.