The old gunrunner called from Baltimore the other day. He owns a store now, but he said that once -- right after World War II -- he ran guns to what was then Palestine. He wanted to talk to me about the situation in the West Bank and Gaza, about which he had private misgivings. The caller made an important point just in passing: American Jews helped in the establishment of Israel.

That point is now either forgotten or ignored. Instead, the American Jewish community has largely adopted the posture insisted on by David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister. Shortly after Israel won independence in 1948, Ben-Gurion issued a dictum: diaspora Jews, especially the numerous and wealthy ones in the American Jewish community, would have no say in the way Israel was run. Responding to a leading American Zionist, Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver of Cleveland, Ben-Gurion announced that no one "could sit in Cleveland and give directions to Tel Aviv."

That quotation, cited in an article written for Present Tense magazine by Arthur Hertzberg, has been exhumed for a purpose. Hertzberg argues that American Jews, if only because they played an instrumental role in the creation of Israel, have a legitimate right to voice their opinions about events there. Hertzberg's brief is grounded in history -- the financial support of Zionism by American Jews and their presence in organizations that have spoken for the Jews of Palestine. He does not mention gunrunning, but there was some of that too.

Yet American Jews have largely (but not entirely) remained silent as Israel -- out of panic, fear or, sometimes, just plain racism -- has implemented a horrific and repugnant policy in the occupied territories. Some 60 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli soldiers; scores of others have been methodically and brutally beaten, and four Israeli soldiers stand accused of having buried some Palestinians alive.

It is to Israel's credit that the four soldiers are under arrest. It is to Israel's credit that its press remains free and vibrant. It's good that the Israeli attorney general has recommended the arrest of a government interrogator who allegedly tortured a Palestinian to death. But none of this changes the fact that these events -- the killings, the beatings, the torture -- have happened and continue to happen. Nor can democracy excuse a wrongheaded and ultimately tragic policy in which the West Bank and Gaza -- both demographic time bombs -- are retained.

At the moment, the cliche' is to compare Israel to South Africa. At best, the comparison is premature. But in an article in The Jerusalem Post, Israel's former head of military intelligence, Yehoshafat Harkabi, uses an equally ominous, and probably accurate, metaphor: Northern Ireland. He writes of the "Belfastization of the territories" -- the prospect of bitter, ugly, sectarian warfare. He calls for surrender of the West Bank and Gaza, negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization and, ultimately, the creation of a Palestinian state.

Harkabi's plan -- bold, almost shocking -- may or may not be a prescription for peace. But his description of the territories as another Northern Ireland seems apt. The evidence appears nightly on television and daily in the press. Events have seized Israel by the collar. It's losing control of its destiny and squandering its moral inventory. It has no choice, really, other than to ultimately surrender the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It has no choice other than to recognize Palestinian nationalism.

American Jews have an obligation to help Israel face its hard choices. Yet, by and large, the Jewish community has remained silent, keeping its agony "within the family." But "the family" was instrumental in the founding of Israel. It has supported it over the years with an awesome generosity, and its good will cannot be disputed. Its most significant contribution at the moment could well be criticism (or, at the very least, a tolerance of any criticism uttered by intimidated American politicians and policy makers), a cry of protest at both policy and behavior -- a reprimand with a reminder that Israel is a Jewish nation, not just a nation, and that the adjective has both historical and moral implications.

The late Arthur Koestler once rebuked another Englishman for not protesting Hitler's treatment of Jews. "As long as you don't feel. . . ashamed of being alive while others are being put to death, you will remain what you are, an accomplice by omission." Koestler's words could now be directed to those in the American Jewish community who, like the old gunrunner, are grieved but mute. By their silence, they are accomplices by omission. "American Jews have an obligation to help Israel face its hard choices."