LAST MARCH IN these pages I dared to say that America is a better place for Jews than the State of Israel. And, boy, did I hear about it!

By asserting that America is the promised land for Jews, I violated an article of faith of modern Jewish life: That the State of Israel is the central focus of the postwar Jewish experience and the "spiritual center" of Jews everywhere. But it wasn't even so much what I said as where and how I said it. My article got me into trouble with some Jewish Americans because I violated a language-norm of minorities everywhere: I said in public what you're allowed to say only in private.

In public, minorities present a united front because, they think, they're under siege. We Jews are like everybody else, only more so. Like other minority groups, we're supposed meekly to agree with the party line-whatever it is.

Being the archetypal minority community, my Jewish critics condemned not what I said but where I said it, or even how I said it. It came down to the same thing. I said what most people agree with but don't want to have said in front of the gentiles (which is to say, everybody outside the mental laager we Jews are supposed to make around ourselves).

From Washington: "Don't you know The Washington Post is put out by a bunch of anti-Semites?"

From Jerusalem: "Say it in Hebrew, or at least in the Jerusalem Post (where I do write regularly, as a matter of fact), because we all know you're right. But if you say it in The Washington Post, the goyim {gentiles} will hear, too."

But talk is cheap. Some people took action. I have thought of myself as a Zionist for years and from 1957 have held and now hold a life membership in the the Zionist Organization of America. Despite my view of myself and my Zionism, a Zionist magazine for which I wrote regularly pulled an article of mine that the magazine was preparing to publish.

The editor of the magazine, Midstream, a journal of Jewish affairs, which is published by the Jewish Agency, wrote me: "I'm sure you are aware of the immense pleasure it gave me to print your essays, which have always seemed to me a unique fusion of erudition and sparkling incisiveness . . . . But your recent broadside against Zionism, which I understand has appeared in more than 450 newspapers, on the front page of the relevant sections, has now . . . . changed your 'image' in the mind of a very broad public. From that point of view, even minor cosmetic changes in 'Two Judaisms?' {an essay of mine then in corrected galleys, scheduled for the magazine's next issue} would scarcely be enough to justify Midstream, which is, after all, a combat organ of the Zionist movement, in printing it. I enclose it, accordingly, with great regret, and with my assurance to you of my great esteem for your remarkable qualities."

That has to be the saddest letter ever written. I was put under administrative excommunication in reprisal not for what I said, but for saying it in the wrong place-in front of the gentiles.

But don't conclude I'm a lonely martyr, or even a martyr at all. This is commonplace, it's standard and it happens to lots of people all the time. I find myself in the distinguished company of Philip Roth and Bernard Malamud, to name only two. The only thing that was unusual was that Midstream had the stupidity to say it honestly and in writing. Mostly, the agents of Big Brother just murder through silence: They won't print you, they won't let you speak, they won't review your books, they won't argue with you. The Germans have a word for it-leave it to the Germans to have lots of specialized words for different kinds of murder. They call it Todschweigen: murder by silence.

We live in a free country, a big country, with lots of opportunities to speak, to write, to think, to argue: It's the glory of America, and it's why so many truth-tellers make their way here, telling truth. My own state, Rhode Island, in its formative age was described as the sewer of America because of its high concentration of sonofabitch truth-tellers.

It's true that I'm on lots of peoples' lists of unacceptable persons, and for lots of reasons. But so is everybody else who has anything to say in Jewish affairs -- if not on one list, then on some other. That's how it is in the minority communities.

For the issue is not what you say but whether you are heard. Why does that really matter? The reason is simple. If you are heard, "the community" cannot control you, and then you form a threat. What's really at stake? It's control of "the community" by those who think they can control "the community." But who wants to live in a community anyone thinks can be manipulated and pushed around? No Americans I know.

The bureaucratic excommunication is a standard technique, and everybody uses it, often, and for every sort of occasion. But the reason is always the same: You broke ranks. What ranks?

As I told the editor of Midstream, "Your colleagues are no worse than anyone else. If it hadn't been for this, it would have been for something else." Once the concept of prohibited thoughts is accepted, it goes without saying that someone will think them and that names will be put on those lists. And the lists, in Jewish agencies and institutions, seminaries and communities, that prohibit Jacob Neusner have plenty more names. I'm not the only one, nor even an important one, and many others have been silenced -- or have silenced themselves. But the costs of not-truth-telling far exceed those of truth-telling because you never stop paying the price for lying, even through silence.

My own experience suggests that the censorship and the excommunication aim not at me but at others who might follow my lead. People know that if I can't print something here, I'll find a place somewhere else, because I'm not likely to be shut up. But the game's the thing: "See what we can do to him (even if it makes no difference to him), because we can and will do it to you, too." And that's another matter.

I'm a tenured university professor. No one can get at me. But how about the rabbis and intellectuals employed in vulnerable positions without secure careers? You can get at them, and when they see what people try to do to me for truth-telling, they draw only conclusion: Silence may not be golden, but it pays the rent.

But that's not the American way. The Jewish community in this country has got to discover America. What they have to learn is that it really is a free country. It's time to stop cursing Columbus.

In this country, everybody lives in public -- and we Jews more than most. For Jews is news, and people find us unusually interesting, even when we're merely commonplace: like everybody else, only more so. The idea that we can conduct our affairs within a privileged sanctuary of silence, debating things by ourselves and then presenting a united front to a hostile world, is wrong. And it's not only wrong, it's stupid.

But there are more reasons for free and public discourse within the Jewish community than merely the intrinsic worth of defining public policy in public.

First, the world is not all that hostile. Not everybody hates us because we're Jews, and we don't hate anybody (more or less). At home, in my own university, for local reasons, I've taken a pretty controversial stand on Brown's administration, which I regard as intellectually bankrupt and educationally corrupt. Lots of people have gotten very mad at me. In seven years of leading the contras to this particular regime, I have not once gotten a letter, signed or unsigned, of an anti-Semitic character. That's the one (and only) thing the other side has not held against me. In more general terms, people don't think they're anti-Semitic when they disagree with, or get mad as hell at Jews. And they're right, they're not. There's no laager out there, and we don't need to circle the wagons any more.

Second, whether or not people hate us, we are living in a free and open society. People listen to people. When blacks won't criticize Jesse Jackson in public but will in private, everyone in America hears about it. And why not? It's part of public life, lived by our friends and neighbors, therefore by us all. America is segregated behind a thousand walls, but all of them are invisible to the public.

Third, some of our business is public anyhow, like the $3 billion a year that we all think the State of Israel should continue to get to help it keep going, not to mention political support in every other way. We address the public forum with a long list of things we want. We are, therefore, part of public discourse. How can we pretend that we can stop people from tuning in on our channel?

The same is so for the blacks and all other examples of minority communities. Blacks come to the public forum with many important and legitimate demands. Can they deny to the same public forum the right to hear diverse opinion, coming from blacks, about what blacks think is good for blacks? Will Hispanics pretend that they have only a single interest (for example, immigration laws to ease the everyday fears of good working people) and not a multiplicity of interests and concerns? When Jews, blacks, Hispanics, and women pretend to a uniformity that exists only in imagination, they confirm the one hostile judgment of the world beyond: They're really all alike, they look alike and act alike -- and, therefore, can be judged alike, and not as individuals. But none of us in the minority world wants that. We don't want to be told we all look alike, because we don't. But then let's stop pretending we all think alike.

For we Jews come from a tradition of free debate and sustained, rigorous inquiry. No question too tough, no answer too sensitive, stands in the way of the practical and applied reason of Talmudic studies, for instance. Everything is open, everything up for grabs. And that is the secret of our vigorous and exciting intellectual life. But then, if we have to tell one another not to talk so loud, or in such clear language, then what sort of an intellectual life do we now have left?

And we American Jews cannot have it every which way. We can't jump into debates on public policy and frame a Jewish position -- and we do on a vast range of issues and I think we should -- but then claim that on some issues, public debate is forbidden.

We can't both live in an open society and also pretend that we live in a ghetto and can mumble in a private language behind the walls. We speak English, not Yiddish or Hebrew. We live wherever we want, say whatever we want, do whatever we want. That's freedom. Why then restrict that freedom and even imagine we can penalize those who exercise it?

Freedom is an absolute good, and that means it's good also for the Jews -- and for all the other groups in the model of the generic minority. And anyhow, do the shakers and the quakers of the organized Jewish community honestly believe that they can shut the Jews up? What a wonderful fantasy! We are the world's great arguers -- take three Jews, you get four political positions, so the saying goes.

So let's stop arguing about why freedom is a good thing -- but not for us "as Jews" or except "when the State of Israel is concerned."

No, freedom is indivisible and freedom knows no frontier.

Jacob Neusner, professor of Judaic Studies at Brown University, is the author of "The Enchantments of Judaism."