The White House struggled this week to put out a political brushfire that swept the Jewish community after President Carter compared the Palestinian movement in the Middle East to the U.S. civil rights cause.

Jewish leaders, many of whom participated in the civil rights movements in the South in the 1950s and 1960s and who supported Carter in 1976, expressed shock and anger at the comparison, reported in Wednesday's New York Times.

Spokesmen for the American Jewish Congress and the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith called the comparison "insulting," "frightening" and "unfortunate."

The furor over Carter's remarks, made at a White House dinner Monday, appeared to be another politically damaging setback for Carter -- this time with a community of voters vital to a Democratic presidential candidate and who say they already are troubled by some of Carter's views on the Middle East.

New York Times reporter Leonard Silk was one of those invited to the dinner. Writing about Carter's remarks, he said that at one point the president "likened the Palestinian cause to the Civil rights movement in the United States."

"The president depicted it as a highly emotional issue and a matter of rights," Silk wrote.

Commenting on the president's remarks, Arnold Foster, general counsel for the Anti-Defamation League, said:

"The people I talked to . . . are frightened by the comparsion. They see the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] as a band of murderers, while the American civil rights movement represents the best in America, the glory of our system.

"Carter's suggestion that the PLO is akin to civil rights is the worst insult he could level at Americans trying to achieve true equality. Americans are not murderers or false revolutionaries."

Despite Foster's comments, the Times article mentioned only the "Palestinian cause" -- not the PLO, which refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist and which advocates violence to achieve its ends.

White House press secretary Jody Powell said at a news briefing Wednesday that Carter was speaking about a specific section of the Camp David accord that deals with the possible return of Palestinian refugees to the West Bank.

"The president simply observed that he felt that this right to return was important to the Palestinians, as a matter of principle, even though many may not or would not choose to exercise it," Powell said.

The comparison did not mean that the president condoned any "terrorism and violence" in the Middle East, Powell said. "The American civil rights movement was successful because it was and is nonviolent," he added.

According to Theodore Mann, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the president's support in the Jewish community "will not depend on what he says but on his actual policy decisions in regard to the Palestinians."