AS USUAL, THE rumors about the Jews are wrong. They are not converting, they continue to be a stubborn people. In spite of the many public pronouncements hailing or decrying a Jewish move to the right led by a supposedly influential group of Jewish "neo-conservative" intellectuals, American Jews remain the most liberal and Democratic white ethno-religious group.

Conservatives and Republicans remain in a small minority among Jews generally and particularly among their intellectuals. In spite of the much-heralded split between major segments of the Jewish and black communities, Jews are still the one major white group to support blacks for public office. Harold Washington would not be mayor of Chicago today without the votes he received from Jews.

The continuing propensity of Jews to support liberal candidates and positions is even more evident when their political behavior and opinions are compared with those of others at the same average socio-economic level. Survey research indicates that the level of Republican support increases steadily with average income. The median Jewish income is higher than that of other sects, but the Jews are the most Democratic of all groups, as they demonstrated again in November by their overwhelming support for Walter F. Mondale. As one wag put it, Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like blacks.

Opinion polls report that while 20-30 percent of all Americans identify themselves as liberals, close to half of the Jews do. Survey findings on assorted social issues -- abortion, the equal rights amendment, regulations affecting the environment, civil rights for blacks, including approval of busing to achieve integration and of affirmative action quotas -- all attest to the far greater strength of liberal attitudes among Jews than among any other group of whites.

The now well-publicized story of the emergence of a major group of former liberal, largely Jewish, group of Republican neo-conservative intellectuals is a myth. It was originally created by a socialist leader, Michael Harrington. During the '60s, Harrington, the former chairperson of the Socialist Party, sought to disassociate himself and his colleagues who had formed the Democratic Socialists from another political sect which had also come out of the dissolved socialist party, the Social Democrats U.S.A.

Harrington deliberately coined the term "neo-conservatives" to describe the changed politics of a group of people, most of whom had been identified with socialism or with the anti-communist, Hubert H. Humphrey wing of the Democratic Party, as well as some associated with Sen. Henry Jackson, a liberal on economic issues and a hawk on foreign policy.

These included ex-radicals such as the three editors of The Public Interest, Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer and Irving Kristol. Others were Kristol's wife, historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, Norman Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, and his wife, writer Midge Decter. Saul Bellow and Sidney Hook were also on the list, as was I, and Carl Gershman, Social Democratic leader.

Some were followers of Hubert Humphrey or Henry Jackson, Jews like Max Kampelman, Ben Wattenberg and myself, and non- Jews like political scientists Austin Ranney, Jeanne Kirkpatrick and her husband, Evron, long time executive director of the American Political Science Association. Other non- Jews frequently mentioned were closely associated with Commentary, and The Public Interest, like Daniel Patrick Moynihan and James Q. Wilson.

What most of these people had in common, in addition to a strong identification with welfare-state policies and support for trade unions, was a deep suspicion of the Soviet Union, advocacy of hard-line foreign and defense policies and a passionate concern for Israel's security. Almost all of us had reacted strongly against the New Left movement of the '60s and early '70s.

Identifying with democracy as an end in itself and strongly attached to the values of scholarship, we had argued that the attacks by the New Left on the university, and on the democratic political system, were not only unwarranted, but played into the hands of antidemocratic extremists, both of the left and the right. Hence we were regarded as renegades by the New Left.

Harrington and his fellow Democratic Socialists shared many of the positions taken by their erstwhile comrades. They, however, were more concerned with keeping their image as leftists, and sought to create a post-Vietnam socialist movement which included the New Left activists. They were hampered by the fact that many of the younger New Leftists regarded them as conservative, since the Democratic Socialists had criticized New Left tactics and insisted that the democratic left oppose communist- led movements in Third World countries.

By coining the term neo-conservative, Harrington sought to create a chasm between himself and those he regarded as right-wing Social Democrats, in order to build bridges to people once active in the New Left and "new politics" movements.

The subsequent development of and seemingly increased influence of the neo-conservative "movement" are a good example of a phenomenon sociologists describe as "labeling." Labels determine reactions to those labeled, whether they are described as psychotic, communist or conservative.

In the case of the neo-conservatives, the label led many of our former friends and allies, for whom "conservative" is an invidious term, to reject us. Conversely, the label led many genuine traditional conservatives and business people, long unhappy about their limited support among intellectuals, to welcome as new allies this group of prominent intellectuals who, they were told, had come over to their side.

We "neo-conservatives" found ourselves rejected by our old friends and welcomed by our opponents. Having lost substantial sources of income from the traditional supporters of left intellectuals, including universities and magazines, we found ourselves (often unwittingly) the beneficiaries of support from the right. This frequently included substantial lecture and writing fees and appreciative audiences -- particularly when the neo-conservatives dealt with issues on which they and the conservatives agreed, including politics, foreign policy, affirmative- action quotas and the need for higher moral standards.

Since most prominent neo-conservatives, particularly the editors of the magazines most associated with the term -- Commentary and The Public Interest, and in more recent times, The New Republic -- were Jewish, the development was seen as indicating a shift by a significant number of Jewish intellectuals to conservatism.

In fact, however, only a few, such as Kristol and the Podhoretzes, became Republicans and conservatives, although Kristol still describes himself as a supporter of the welfare state. Others, such as Kirkpatrick and Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle, while remaining welfare Democrats on domestic issues, were recruited to Reagan's foreign policy and defense teams. (Soon after her speech to the GOP's Dallas convention, Kirkpatrick appeared on NBC with Roger Mudd and reemphasized her attachment to the Democratic Party and the welfare state). Most, however, are still Democrats; some are also socialists.

They have been active in the Coalition for a Democratic Majority (CDM), founded by Sens. Jackson and Moynihan and chaired by Ben Wattenberg. Most of those in the CDM -- which includes many other prominent Democratic congressional and trade union leaders -- supported Walter Mondale for nomination and election, seeing in his candidacy a continuation of the Humphrey-Jackson anti-communist liberalism.

The Democtic neo-conservatives identify much more with The New Republic, perhaps the clearest exponent of CDM politics, than with Commentary. They have always preferred to be labeled as "neo-liberals," a term, however, which has been taken over by others, who are somewhat more fiscally conservative on domestic policies but much more dovish on foreign issues.

The term "neo-conservative" has become almost meaningless. It has been used indiscriminately to label various types of conservativism. Some treat it as synonymous with right-wing Republicanism, others with supporters of supply-side economics. The group that Harrington originally labeled has never been cohesive. Bell and Hook call themselves socialists or social democrats. Podhoretz has encouraged descriptions of my politics in these terms. In 1972, Kristol endorsed Richard Nixon; Daniel Bell and Nathan Glazer backed George McGovern. Kristol apart, almost all those labeled neo-conservatives supported Carter in 1976 under the mistaken impression that he was a follower of Henry Jackson, whom he had nominated at the 1972 Democratic convention. They divided in 1980 among Carter, Anderson and Reagan.

But Reagan's support among the neo-conservatives, as among Jews generally, declined in 1984, with the majority going to Mondale, who made a very deliberate and on the whole successful effort to win the backing of CDMers, as a candidate in the Humphrey-Jackson tradition. Even Israel has been as much a source of division as of ideological cohesion. Bell, Glazer and I have been active in support of the Israeli peace movement; Kristol and the Podhoretzes back Israel's hawks.

The judgment that liberalism has continued as the dominant mode among Jewish intellectuals and their apprentices, the college students, is reinforced by a variety of polling data. Surveys of university faculty by Everett Ladd and myself during the '60s and '70s, found that the Jews among them (10 percent) were much more liberal and Democratic than their non-Jewish colleagues.

Stanley Rothman and Robert Lichter, who have surveyed samples of high status persons in the media, the sciences and various professions, also report Jews as overwhelmingly liberal, often including a significant socialist minority. Jewish undergraduates also are much more to the left in their opinions than other students.

The increase in the difference in partisan presidential voting between Jews and non- Jews in 1984 has been extensively documented. Jewish voters this year preferred Mondale to Reagan by as much as 70-30. (Typically in the last half-century, Jews have supported the Democrat over the Republican in presidential elections by a margin of 20-25 percent.)

(These findings from four national election day exit polls have been challenged by Richard Fox of the Reagan-Bush National Jewish Coalition, who disputes the idea that Reagan's support among Jews fell from 1980 to '84. He argues that the 1984 national media exit polls underestimated the Jewish vote for Reagan because their samples included few or none of the heavily Jewish precincts. But if Fox is right about the bias in the national surveys, the same underestimation of GOP Jewish support should have occurred in 1980, so that Reagan's vote then presumably was higher than the 41 percent Fox credits him with in 1984. Beyond this it may be noted that the CBS News-New York Times exit polls in New York City reported 74 percent of the Jews for Mondale.)

While it was anticipated that Jesse Jackson's anti-Semitism would drive Jews away from the Democratic party, the GOP's growing links with evangelical fundamentalists and its endorsement of their positions on the social issues and on religion in the public schools were more alienating. A Los Angeles Times election day poll found that while only 20 percent of the Jews gave Jackson a favorable rating, compared to 60 percent who disapproved of him, almost none -- 5 percent -- were favorable to Falwell, while 80 percent voiced disapproval. These variations in reaction to the two highly politicized Protestant ministers provide some indication of the proportion of Jews located at each end of the political spectrum -- 20 percent at the far left and five percent at the far right.

To the impact of the church-state issue may be added the fact that Walter Mondale was perceived as the "Son of Hubert," as the protege of the man whom American Jews regarded as their best political friend. In 1968, Hubert Humphrey secured 80 percent of the Jewish vote, over 40 percent more than from the electorate at large.

Why are American Jews, both intellectuals and others, politically on the left? Some seek to explain the behavior by reference to Biblical and religious teachings. These explanations are not plausible, given the multiplicity of values expressed in the Torah and the Talmud. Rather, the answer would seem to lie in the millenia-old history of European Jewry as a minority, persecuted and discriminated against by politically conservative religious and secular establishments.

Following the Enlightenment, Jews were only able to find friends and supporters among the more open-minded political lefts. In America, these identifications were strongly reinforced in the 1930s by the relationship of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Democratic Party to the struggle against Hitler and Nazism, while the Republicans were seen as isolationists and neutralists. This pattern was further strengthened in the post-war era by Truman's support for Israel, behavior contrasted with Dwight D. Eisenhower's seeming ambivalence (he forced Israel out of the Sinai in 1956), and Johnson's and Humphrey's subsequent strong backing for the Jewish state in 1967 and beyond.

In recent years, however, there has been good reason to believe that the stable link between Jews and liberal politics and positions would decline. Tensions with some black groups, the isolationism of "new politics" Democrats and, more importantly, the adoption of anti-Israeli policies by major groups of black, feminist and Third World activists, have turned some Jews away from liberal causes.

Such shifts were facilitated by the fact that a number of prominent conservatives, including Ronald Reagan and various Christian fundamentalist leaders, have backed Israel. In response to these developments, some Jewish leaders, intellectuals and religious figures called for a move by Jews to the Republican Party. Others argued that Jews should recognize that, as individuals who have been enormously successful within the competitive free-enterprise system, they have strong personal interests in the kind of free-market and low-tax policies advocated by conservatives.

Yet, as we have seen, the bulk of the Jews, including the well-to-do and the intellectuals, have not responded politically to such arguments or events. To understand this stubbornness, it is necessary to see the link between the Jewish propensity to be philanthropic and political values, the impact of the mitzvot (injunctions) that the privileged give of their abundance to the less fortunate.

Long before mass emigration to America, European Jewry developed a deeply held value that the fortunate must tax themselves for their poorer and weaker brethren. Communitarianism, welfare, charity, became the highest mitzvot of all. Those Jews who were poor and persecuted suffered not because of any personal weakness, but from the intolerance of the wicked. The Jews whom God blessed with wealth and security could only hope to maintain their fortune and state if they gave heartily of their treasure.

When European Jewry and their offspring in America found themselves in a secure, open, secular society, the obligation to engage in charitable mitzvot became secularized in the form of a commitment to tsedakah (charity) to help both Jews and non- Jews. The latter value is clearly related to the politics of welfare, to aid the weak and poor and to support the rights of other minorities.

In contemporary America, Jews are extremely generous in financial support of both general community and Jewish causes including the United Fund, universities, music organizations, as well as the United Jewish Appeal. Jews not only make much larger gifts to tax-deductible institutions than others do, they also have been much more willing than comparably affluent non-Jews to donate to politics, most heavily of course to Democratic and liberal causes.

This Jewish role has been modified, but far from eliminated, by the limitations on campaign contributions. These regulations have resulted in the rise of PACs -- political action committees -- established by those with common values and interests in order to raise monies, which can then be redistributed around the country to assorted congressional and Senate campaigns. According to Herb Alexander, the leading authority on the subject, there are now at least 31 national Jewish PACs and many more local ones. The bulk of their funds go to help elect liberal and democratic candidates.

The Jewish ethic with its emphasis on community and family welfare may be contrasted to the Protestant ethic with its stress on individualism, on the dictum that "God helps those who help themselves." The former has obvious links to the principles espoused by American liberals and the Democratic party; the latter has clear relations with the values subsumed under laissez-faire competitive individualism as expressed by conservatives and the Republican party.

The Catholic tradition, recently reiterated by the statement on economic principles of the American bishops, resembles the welfare values held by most Jews and Democrats, although the church is closer to the GOP on church-state and social issues. The electoral division in 1984 reflected these variations, Jews for Mondale, white Protestants for Reagan and Catholics in the middle.

American Jews, including their intellectuals, remain welfare-state and social-issue liberals. Some are more hawkish about foreign policy, reflecting a growth in awareness of the imperialist and anti-Semitic roles of the Soviet Union. But today, as in the past, Jewish Americans committed to tsedakah, an emphasis on community responsibility and charity, see these values expressed by liberals and Democrats, much as most white Protestants associate their ethic with the opposite politics.

Fortunately for the democratic process, neither white Protestants nor Jews are homogeneous politically. A minority of white Protestants are liberal Democrats, a minority of Jews are conservative Republicans. But the Protestant and Jewish ethics are different and most of those reared in these two traditions will continue to find themselves in different camps politically.