Rabbi Jacob Neusner points to the refusal of Midstream magazine to publish his article as evidence of his "excommunication" from the Jewish establishment in America {"Tilting at Zion: The High Price of Free Speech," Outlook, Oct. 4}.

What bothers the rabbi is not that he has been muzzled, which he knows to be false, but that he has suffered a sharp drop in popularity following his earlier contribution to Outlook {March 8}. Neusner's unpopularity, however, has less to do with his "truth-telling" than with the fact that American Jews were angered and hurt by his smug polemic "Is America the Promised Land for Jews?"

This article relied on an old method: the fabrication of antagonists and the conjuring up of outrageous statements to create a platform for attack. The rabbi's demons, in this case, were the Israelis, who allegedly lash out at Jewish Americans for not turning their backs on their homeland to join us in the Holy Land.

For the record, it is not an Israeli habit to chide American Jews for not emigrating. In fact, Israeli leaders dare not even promote "Aliya" publicly. David Ben-Gurion had to accept long ago that Jewish American audiences refused to be told, "We need you, come and help." Forty years before Neusner's discovery of the Promised Land in the U.S.A., American Jewish community leaders had already made their feelings and choices clear to their Israeli friends.

Pretending to be oblivious to this old and well-established sentiment, Neusner found it necessary to reveal that the grass is greener on his side of the Atlantic. The poor relatives in that "client state" in the Middle East have not got it half as good as the prosperous American branch of the family. Life in Israel is constant danger, the economy is a shambles, and the cultural output inferior. Charitably, he gave us high marks for looking after geriatrics and children, but as adults we fail, as did our grandparents who foolishly chose Palestine rather than America.

Israelis are used to devastating criticism, and most of the time they produce it themselves, so they should be able to take Neusner in their stride. When necessary, we know how to blow our horns. Like it or not, the state of Israel is the one great Jewish collective achievement of our time. Tel Aviv is obviously safer than New York, and indigenous Israeli culture is something to be proud of even if it does not set the tone for Jewish life in Rhode Island.

But American Jewish readers must have been hurt by the insults poured on Israel. Many of them worry about Israel's problems, and might resent the self-congratulatory tone of Neusner's assertions. Their anger is not characteristic of a "fearful minority," but of a protective family. It is quite wrong to say that American Jews refrain from discussing Israel's problems in public. In fact, Israelis get upset when they overdo it.

Israelis are impressed with the vividness and exuberance of Jewish life in America. Certainly we would like as many American Jews as possible to come and share our experience in Israel. Right now migrants from the United States help lead the fight against religious dogmatism in our country.

In spite of all our shortcomings, we are nonetheless gratified to be told by our American Jewish friends that our very existence has been a significant contribution to the Jewish renaissance in America today. The state of Israel is a source of pride, emotion and identification to many Jews in America and strengthens their own sense of Jewishness. It seems that Neusner set out to destroy this commitment and sense of affinity. If there is only "guilt" in the Jewish interest in Israel, as he claimed, Jews logically must be freed of it.

Unfortunately, the timing of his first message could not have been more disastrous. It was published four days after Jonathan J. Pollard was sentenced to life imprisonment for letting his love of Zionism turn him into an Israeli spy. American Jewry was tormented and worried. Vicious innuendo about "dual loyalty" and "lack of patriotism" was in the air, and Neusner's article was like rubbing salt in the wound.

Instead of understanding the uproar, he retorts angrily in his second Outlook article that "the Jewish community in this country has got to discover America." One wonders, is this the same Jewish community from the first article, seven months earlier, for which "the American Dream has come true"? Or is the man of God indulging in some demagogy? Claiming there is a threat to freedom of speech because one was criticized and rejected by a single magazine really is an exaggeration. Rabbi Neusner's freedom should indeed be guaranteed, but so should everybody else's. Free societies have the tiresome habit of choosing, among other things, the people they care to listen to.

Ofra Yeshua-Lyth

The writer is a Washington correspondent for the Israeli daily Maariv.