My telephone friend (I've never met him in person) James Zogby is called an antisemite in a fund-raising letter sent out by the American Jewish Congress. Zogby is nothing of the sort. He is, instead, an Arab American, the head of the Arab American Institute, a vociferous champion of the Palestinian cause and a critic of Israel who has sometimes used industrial-strength language to make his point. He is, though, no Jew hater.

The American Jewish Congress now concedes as much. In many faxes and in several conversations with me, the AJC's executive director, Henry Siegman, says his fund-raisers went too far with Zogby -- but not so far that a retraction is in order. For at least one mailing, Zogby will remain an antisemite.

And what an antisemite he remains. In the letter, he is linked by three dots (guilt by ellipses) to, among others, David Duke, the former Nazi and former Klansman. The same three dots, moving on as if by their own accord, also equate Zogby with the Rev. Louis Farrakhan, whose antisemitism, at least to me, is beyond dispute. By putting Zogby into such company, the AJC suggests that the case against him is also beyond dispute. That's hardly the case.

The case, instead, is that Zogby has said some unfortunate things over the years. For instance, he once endorsed the proposition that Zionism is tantamount to racism. He no longer does -- although the AJC did not seem to know that. He once allegedly stooped to using a crass physical description of a certain congressman, but that was in 1986 and seems a one-time-only thing. More frequently, he has questioned whether certain congressmen are representing their districts or their contributors -- in this case, pro-Israel political action committees.

American Jews are particularly sensitive to charges that they have a dual loyalty -- to Israel as well as to the United States. For historical reasons, they are also sensitive to charges that, through the use of money, they exert illegitimate influence -- a staple of antisemitism. Both these sensitivities are understandable. But the questions Zogby raises about pro-Israel money are really not different from ones that have been raised about oil money or savings and loan money or the money of any well-organized, affluent group. To suggest that money speaks louder than individuals is as American as apple pie. It also may be the truth.

It goes without saying that it's both wrong and lamentable to falsely charge anyone with antisemitism. It also goes without saying that anti-Zionism is not the same as antisemitism. I would not expect a Palestinian to be a supporter of Israel. In fact, I would not expect any Arab to be pro-Israel. Given that, though, Zogby comes pretty close. He recognizes -- without endorsing -- the legitimate aspirations of Zionism and recognizes also Israel's right to exist. Given his politics, it would be hard to ask more of him.

But as long as things are being lamented -- either the charge of antisemitism or what Zogby said to trigger it -- it would not be out of place to really lament what produced this flap in the first place: the reckless language of the fund-raising letter.

These letters are almost always written in Mussolini-speak: pugnacious language in which (would we lie to you?) the commies are coming, the seals are dying, the rain forest is burning and -- soon -- only criminals will have guns. The intent of the letter is to scare, almost terrorize, so that the recipient will, trance-like, reach for his checkbook and repulse the threat with a donation.

There's no doubt in my mind that the American Jewish Congress's letter writers went off half-cocked -- and without Siegman's knowledge. For some time now, both Siegman and his organization have been guilty of moderation and fairness when it comes to the Middle East. The letter accusing Zogby of antisemitism is in no way typical of the way the American Jewish Congress operates. It is typical, though, of the way direct mail firms operate -- including those that work for Zogby. They might learn to moderate their language also.

But the bottom line in this case is that a charge of explosive force has been made and very little evidence has been provided to support it. The last person publicly accused of antisemitism, Patrick Buchanan, defended himself in a manner to prove the original case. Zogby, in contrast, called me and all but cried into the phone protesting his innocence. Based on what I know, I believe him. Based on what the American Jewish Congress provided, I can't believe it. An apology is in order.