A WAVE of "historical revisionism" is washing over the country, part of it originating in Europe but much of it generated here at home. What is being revised is the conventional history of the Holocaust, with the argument being put forth that it was a hoax perpetrated to gain sympathy for Jews and for the creation of the state of Israel.

Until recently, the revisionists were very few in number, attracted almost no audience beyond themselves, and could be easily labeled as neo-Nazis, anti-Semites and far-right-wingers -- easily and accurately. In the last few years, however, their numbers have grown remarkably, their respectability has been shored up by assorted PhDs, they have formed institutes and publishing houses, they have pled for equal time in the name of fairness and academic freedom, and people are listening.

I've become concerned about that listening. Most of us still find the revisionists' argument absurd and the motivations behind it patent. But others, especially the young, seem willing to consider it on the peculiarly contemporary grounds that everything is debatable and that nothing should be accepted as true that was not personally seen and experienced.

And still others, not so young, also seem willing to listen. Their motivations may be closer to the motivations of the revisionists themselves, and may have something to do with the wish to remove the major impediment to anti-Semitism that has existed for the past four decades. The fact that the Jews were signaled out for destruction in World War II, and that 6 million of them were actually murdered in the most extreme and focused act of organized human savagery, makes it hard to express one's antipathy toward Jews, or even toward Israel: The sympathy evoked by the Holocaust has just been too powerful, and the danger of being seen as harboring an anti-Semitic mentality -- a mentality that brought itself to bloody and almost total realization in the camps and ghettos -- has been just too great. Now, however, with the help of the newly respectable revisionists, it's easier to vent negative feelings about Jews, and about Israel, with less danger of provoking such unsavory perceptions.

I fear this development. I fear it because I see it the breaking through of anti-Semitic passions that the country has been spared since the late 1930s; already, desecrations of synagogues, cemeteries and other Jewish places have multiplied severalfold.

And I fear it, too, because if the revisionists are successful in rendering the Holocaust just another matter for debate, then no piece of history is safe, nothing can remain a true fact, all human experience is conveniently subject to ideological interpretation or wishful negation, and we become nothing more than what we believe. The experiences that have ravaged but also taught us can no longer be known and can no longer teach us. We can only recognize ourselves in the present, without the capacity, on the basis of what some of us have done, to understand, at the extremes, what we are all capable of doing.

The matter has been brought to a head by a lawsuit, filed recently in Los angeles, against the Institute for Historical Review. That institute offered a prize of $50,000 to anyone who could prove, to its revisionist satisfaction, that Jews had been gassed at Auschwitz. One Auschwitz survivor, Melvin Mermelstein, who saw members of his family driven into a gas chamber at that concentration camp, provided an affidavit to that effect and then sued the institute when he was not awarded the prize.

Mermelstein may well lose his suit, which was brought for breach of contract: The conditions laid down by the institute in offering the prize were such that no one could have won it. The substantive issue of the gas chambers will probably never be raised. And the institute will then claim that revisionism has been proved true in a U.S. court of law. The argument will seem just a little more credible, and those inclined to believe it, for whatever reason, will be so inclined just a little more.

The Holocaust was carried out by a nation that was among the most civilized on the planet. The urge to delay it is, in some primitive sense, in all of us: we would all like to forget how frighteningly weak are the safeguards, both psycological and cultural, that protect us from our worst impulses. In their evil, the Nazis showed us where bigotry can lead. All of us -- all races, all religions, all peoples -- stand in danger of relinquishing that lesson.