If America is the Promised Land for Jews, as Rabbi Jacob Neusner would have us believe {Outlook, Oct. 4}, where the hell was America when my father's entire family was being butchered by the Nazis -- among 6 million others -- 45 years ago?

Let's set the record straight -- lest Jews be lulled into a false and misguided sense of security again. Jews are no more secure in America today than they were in Germany 60 years ago -- but for one saving reality: the state of Israel, which illuminates the map of the world.

Israeli author Amos Elon put it unforgettably: ''People without a country of their own are the scum of the earth -- the inevitable prey of beasts!'' That is no less true of the Armenians or the Kurds than it is true of the Jews.

It was no quirky accident that Hitler's ''final solution to the Jewish problem'' proceeded unimpeded for a decade. Nobody gave a damn -- not Roosevelt, not Hull, not Churchill. Jews were a homeless, rootless mass without advocate or supporter or homeland. Since the Roman destruction of the second Jewish Commonwealth 1,900 years before, the story was always the same: ''People without a country of their own are the scum of the earth. . . .''

When Eisenhower liberated Dachau at war's end -- the place where my uncle and my cousin were murdered -- the story began to seep into our consciousness. But no one should hold an illusion that there occurred an immediate mass transformation of American concern for the remnants of the Jewish people or their future. Marshall originated a plan for the economic rebirth of Europe -- the unmarked cemetery of European Jewry -- without a hint of repair of the decimated remnants of that people.

My cousin, Masha -- the only survivor of the camps of my entire family -- miraculously survived Stutthoff -- near Gdansk. Near the war's end, as the British Army approached, the Nazi guards determined to leave no visible evidence of the camp. They took the inmates, loaded them on barges, floated them out in the North Sea and pushed them over the side to drown. A British soldier pulled Masha out of the surf on the beach, a choking half-drowned wretch. Her sister, Penina, was never found.

Masha, a young woman of indomitable will and courage -- and heritage and culture -- literally walked to a displaced persons' camp in Italy. Because of the concern of a U.S. Army captain on his way home to the United States who located my father in Washington, she was able to communicate the reality of her survival to him, her uncle whom she had never met because he came to America before she was born.

That was 1945. Dad immediately sought to bring her here -- his sole surviving relative of the Holocaust. What consideration could merit more concern, more sympathy, more immediate response than his request for a U.S. visa for Masha?

But this was the America that was dominated by the vision of Sen. Pat McCarran -- not the vision of Emma Lazarus!

Masha was a native of Lithuania; thus she could only be admitted to our country under the ''Lithuania Quota.'' Of course, there was no longer a Lithuania -- it was now Russia! There was only a DP camp -- and a ''Lithuanian Quota.'' She was interned in Italy for four years. Her visa wasn't issued until 1949.

Before Israel became a free and independent state in its historic homeland on May 14, 1948, America's Jews were a mostly invisible blip on the horizon of the American mainstream. Jews had almost no political, social, economic or cultural clout. Occasionally a Jew would show up in the House of Representatives or the Senate. Louis Brandeis made it to the Supreme Court. But in the mainstream, Jewish penetration into industry, the universities, the medical schools, the teaching hospitals, the social and country clubs ranged between zero and a token percentage.

Only with the establishment of the state of Israel did the blip become a wave. The Jewish commonwealth -- this new political entity -- gave substance to a dream. Scattered, isolated, insignificant Jews became a people infused with dignity, with renewed commitment, with reborn spirituality, with hope.

Ben-Gurion and Sapir and Dayan and Meir reflected in the 20th century the sacred American images of Washington and Franklin and Jefferson and Madison. Life and freedom and democracy touched a new continent in an ancient land. That Israel has won its independence, maintained its security and gained its prosperity -- with all its limitations -- has elevated every single Jew everywhere in the world to a passionate fulfillment that could not otherwise be achieved.

But the foundation for every Jewish aspiration in America or anywhere is conditioned on Israel's nationhood. My rabbi, Stanley Rabinowitz of Washington's Adas Israel Synagogue, put it this way: ''The Jewish Religion cannot exist without the Jewish People; the Jewish People cannot exist without the State of Israel; the State of Israel cannot exist without the Jewish Religion.'' That is the chain that commands us to hold the fabric together.

With that fabric in place -- Religion, Peoplehood, Nationhood -- the patterns of human conduct in the world offer a new perspective. Jewish life in America vigorously prospers in every dimension. Israel becomes a safe haven for Iranian, Rumanian, Ethiopian and Russian Jews. Concern for human rights becomes an internationally recognized standard -- even for those slow on the uptake. But imagine what it would be like if Israel falters, God forbid! It is still a world where the pope can recognize Kurt Waldheim and not recognize Israel. Everything else in the church-Jewish relationship is tinsel.

No -- although America may be the very best hope in the world for freedom and democracy and opportunity, it is not the Promised Land for the Jews. Only Israel is that land of promise -- a promise that returns to every Jew in the world an opportunity for security and life and dignity -- and survival.

Israel has lived for nearly 40 years. It is the third Jewish commonwealth. The first two were utterly destroyed -- the Jews scattered among a hostile world. ''People without a country of their own are the scum of the earth. . . .'' If Jews want to live in a world of promise, they will promise that Israel's charter, Israel's fabric, Israel's future will never again come undone.

Donald E. Wolpe

The writer is past president of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington.