BACK IN 1955, at the height of America's communist scare, the Fund for the Republic published a landmark survey of American attitudes towards dissent. Its main findings can be applied not just to McCarthy-era Americans but to a particular group of Americans and its unwillingness to tolerate dissent on a particular subject today. I am talking about the American Jewish community and its views on Israel.

The 1955 survey found that, as a rule, Americans who were most afraid were the people who were most unwilling to condone dissent. So it appears with the American Jewish community now.

A whole lot of American Jews seem to view criticism of Israel as the ethnic-cum-religious equivalent of treason. In this context, the epithet hurled is not "anti-American" but "anti- Semite." In the spirit of ecumenicism, it has been pinned on Jew and Gentile alike, but if personal experience is any guide, the tag is affixed with a special vehemence when it comes to Jews. I don't mind telling you it hurts.

It's not hard, of course, to understand the fears of many Jews. Just as events in the 1950s tended to convince Americans that there really was an internal communist threat -- not to mention a terrifying external one (the Soviets, after all, had seized Eastern Europe, made a grab for Iran and detonated their own nuclear bombs) -- so, too, have events of the last several years convinced many American Jews that Israel is in greater and greater peril.

Objectively, you may argue that that assessment in no way conforms to the facts. Israel is preeminent militarily in the Middle East, and it is in a far better position territorially than it was before the 1967 war. It is no longer nine miles wide at its narrowest point, Jerusalem is no longer a divided city, the Golan Heights are no longer controlled by the irredentist Syrians.

But facts are not half as important as perceptions, and perceptions have changed dramatically -- at least as conveyed by the press.

What happened first was that Israel's manifest virtues became a commonplace. The establishment of a democracy, the assimilation of millions of emigrants, the blooming of the desert, the erection of cities from a magical combination of sand and whole cloth -- suddenly they all became givens, no longer stories for the media. Just as it is not news that most people are not killers, so it was no longer news that a miracle had taken place in the land once known as Palestine.

But when it came to bad news, there was plenty of new material. By 1967, Israel had become an occupying power. By force it had seized the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and by force it held them. History may (or may not) say that Israel was the most benevolent occupying power of all time, but the fact remained that it was an occupying power and that it did things other countries have done in similar circumstances. It removed mayors and demolished homes and exiled leaders and, from time to time, wounded or killed demonstrators. You may argue that Israel was in each and every case justified, but you cannot argue that these things did not happen. When they did, they were news.

In this way, Israel lost its moral preeminence. No longer was it the country of horas, miracles in the desert and philosopher-politicians like David Ben-Gurion. It was a nation that, for whatever reasons, did some pretty nasty things. It became like lots of other nations, better than most, maybe worse than none, but certainly worse when measured against what it had once been and what it had once proclaimed.

Things did not improve with the election of Menachem Begin. Here was no Ben-Gurion, but in fact Ben-Gurion's bitter enemy. Here was no humanitarian out of the mainstream of European Zionism, but a former terrorist, an anathema in his pre-1948 days, a fringe figure of the radical right for a long time afterward. Israel under Begin has been belligerant, its policy aggressive. He is not an easy man to defend.

At the same time, things were changing elsewhere. The Arab world, once seen as nothing but a vast desert populated by sheiks and dancing girls, became more adept at public relations. The Palestinians in particular worked at putting on a sympathetic face, with one stereotype giving way to another. Where once they were seen as mostly deranged terrorists with a hobby of killing Israeli civilians, they suddenly appeared as reasonable fighters for a reasonable cause. Yasser Arafat went from a terrorist leader to a nationalist leader almost overnight. He put aside his gun and picked up a baby. It made for better pictures, if not necessarily for a different policy.

And then there was oil. Suddenly, the Arab world was much more important. U.S. news organizations sent more and more journalists to the Middle East, and the journalists either found that the Arabs were human beings like everyone else or became downright sympathetic. Either way, Israel's good press not only could no longer be guaranteed by what Israel itself did, but it was counterbalanced by reporting from the Arab sphere.

In many ways, then, the events of the last decade have changed matters for Israel and for its American supporters -- particularly the American Jewish community. The news for them, like the news for Americans in the 1950s, became bad.

None of this could change the incredible emotional hold Israel has on American Jews. What matters is the survival of the state. Begin, Arafat, Lebanon, Beirut -- all of this is transitory.

This does not mean that American Jews are single-minded on Israel, or that its well- being takes precedence over the well-being of the United States. The question scarcely ever comes up. There has never been an issue concerning Israel where American Jews stood alone -- not on fighter planes, not on AWACS, not on economic aid.

When it comes to the survival of the state, though, American Jews do stand alone, or almost alone, in their perception that it is even an issue. They think this because to Jews nothing can be unthinkable. Not since the Holocaust.

The lives of most American Jews are contemporaneous with that despicable event. If they did not themselves lose relatives or friends, they usually know someone who did. And even if they do not, the enormity of that crime drives home the lesson that there are people in the world who will kill Jews simply because they are Jews -- and that the world, by and large, will do nothing.

Israel is in a sense an annex to the Holocaust. Not only do many of its survivors live there, but the impetus for its very creation stemmed from the attempt to exterminate European Jewry. To Jews and Gentiles alike -- but especially to Jews -- Israel's moral claim to existence is an ember snatched from Hitler's ovens, a refuge from madness. American Jews are determined that it not turn out to be a box canyon to trap Jews again.

Furthermore, to American Jews the Holocaust has been transformed from a purely historic event to something of a religious one. To some people it has become central to Judaism itself. With more and more American Jews drifting from the traditional Judaism of their parents and grandparents, the Holocaust has provided fresh cohesion, definition, purpose to the religion.

These intense feelings about the Holocaust, at once personal, historic and religious, get intertwined with feelings about Israel, and together they encourage the understandable feeling among many Jews that the world consists of two kinds of people: Those who would kill Jews and those who could not care less.

Begin encourages this tendency to see the Holocaust and Israel as one. He is forever invoking the Holocaust as justification for his policies. He sews a seamless web from the earliest pogroms to Hitler to the latest events in the Middle East. The world is full of anti- Semites. The existence of Israel is at stake. Look to history. Be tough. Be firm. Beware.

And so to many American Jews, as to many Americans in the 1950s, the times seem perilous indeed. It is no time to countenance dissent. Dissent provides ammunition to the anti-Semites, who, ironically, like some Jews themselves, are thought not to give a hoot about Begin but about the ultimate target -- the extinction of Israel and Jews the world over. The person who would provide that ammunition is, almost by definition, an anti- Semite himself.

But how shall we know such a person? Well, one way is to see if he is harder on Israel than on other nations or other peoples.

In one sense, this is a fair enough standard. The hallmark of the traditional anti-Semite is a willingness to hold Jews culpable for doing precisely what others do. The anti-Semite thinks Jews are cheap and greedy but ignores the same vices in others. He thinks Jews are excessively clannish but respects that trait in others. He thinks Jews are excessively concerned with money but admires Gentiles who do nothing more than make fortunes.

Jews are quick to recognize this double- think, and they are quick to spot it among their fellow Jews as well. It is the standard used by Norman Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary magazine, in deciding that indeed, some of the Jewish as well as non-Jewish critics of Israel are anti-Semites. Podhoretz and others detect in these critics a double standard -- and they are right.

But so what? I, for one, would acknowledge that I hold Israel to a higher standard than I do most other nations. I doubt that I am unique in this. A people who declare themselves to be a light unto the world -- well- educated, democratic, humane, technologically advanced -- ought to be judged by a higher standard than, say, Iraqis, the bulk of whom are living only in a physical sense in the 20th century.

To hold Israel to the same standard as some of its neighbors is not only to hold it to no standard at all but to repudiate all that Israel itself says it stands for. Despite recent events, it remains a nation with values that are to be admired.

American Jews, of course, recognize this. Their love for Israel is not based solely on the fact that it is a Jewish state. It is based also on the fact that it has been a state Jews could be proud of. It has a vibrant and free press. It loves its children, takes care of its elderly, embraces education and tries to conduct itself according to Judaism's humanistic tenets.

A state that did not do this would be, well, not Jewish. A dictatorship would not be Jewish and a recklessly aggressive state would not be Jewish. To most American Jews, even a fundamentalist religious state, one that was not tolerant and pluralistic, would not be Jewish, although in the strictest sense it would be the most Jewish state of all.

It is not too much to say, then, that a prime reason American Jews care so much about Israel is that it has by and large lived up to such high standards.

But under Menachem Begin, Israel has been -- by word or by deed -- tarnishing those standards. The situation has not changed so radically that, say, a Ben-Gurion could not recognize the place, but it has changed enough so that the picture is mixed.

It is this that disturbs American Jews so much. For some, it raises fears that they will be held accountable by the dominant American Christian community for the way Israel conducts itself, while for others it simply betrays their affection for Israel. You might love a bad child as much as a good one, but it is easier to talk about and defend the good one. So with Israel, the facts no longer wholly support the emotions.

Under these circumstances, just as it was for the community at large in the 1950s, the tendency is to hunker down. Best not to call attention to what is going on. Best not to criticize openly. Best to hope that true lovers of Israel and true Jews will either rally to its defense or, at the very least, shut up.

The trouble is, of course, that this is impractical as well as short-sighted. The events in Beirut -- the massacre, the bombing, the inany Amevasion -- are in the public domain. Television has done that. Beirut was no pogrom in the Polish forest that the world could not see.

As the antiwar kids used to say, "The whole world is watching," and, it is clear, forming judgments. For the American Jewish community to defend the indefensible would only isolate it from the American community at large and transform a moral force in this country into nothing more than a lobby -- for Israel when it is right or when it is wrong.

The age-old dream of an Israel that incorporates the very best of Judaism, the dream that propelled kids like me out of the house with a cannister for the Jewish National Fund, is turning very slowly into a nightmare. Under these circumstances, it is the obligation of American Jews to speak out, to protest, to treat Israel as they would any nation -- even, if they hold moral values over false patriotism, their own nation.

To do otherwise is to hold Israel to the double-standard that its enemies are supposed to hold it to, only in this case it is a lower one. To protest the bombing of Haiphong and not the bombing of Beirut, the massacre at My Lai but not the Israeli portion of blame for Sabra and Shatila, does Israel a disservice. And to try by epithet to silence those who protest not only makes matters worse, but denies support to the many within Israel itself who dissent from Begin's policies and are outraged by his behavior.

As with communism in the 1950s, there seems to be much to fear today when it comes both to Israel itself and to its standing in this country. But maybe what American Jews should worry about most is that this fear will engender a hostility to dissent that will not only fail to silence critics, but will instead sap the community of its tolerance, its liberalism, its humanism -- the qualities that are at once so American and so Jewish. Silence in the face of injustice, as Jews know well, is for others. It is time to talk.