Sometime during the immense protest rally in Tel Aviv last week, an elderly Polish-born Israeli expressed his pain to a Western reporter. "I came to Israel and worked for it to be a sign for the whole world," he said. "Now I'm ashamed for what we've done."

This theme of personal disillusionment has run like a minor chord through two weeks of self-doubt in Israel. If it is hard to be a sign for the world, it is even harder to see the letters in that sign tarnished.

For every Israeli who argues now that the country's behavior is being held up to some higher standard of morality, there is another who anguishes because the country hasn't lived up to that standard.

Half a world away, the protester's words echo against other experiences, memories and history. This is not the first time we've seen a community founded on ideals foundering in its own eyes.

We have witnessed so many crises of conscience in societies created with the pledge of justice that it seems numbly predictable. We have seen the moral dilemma of slavery in America, the murder of the kulaks in the Soviet Union. Each time a community or country faces its weaknesses, even its sins, we wonder again whether every "good" society is dissolved or distorted by human weakness.

In Israel's history, the stakes have been higher. This was territory carved out by the Western world's guilt. As a nation of survivors, the Israelis carried a burden of proof. Much of the world invested in this small country the profound hope that something good could come out of evil.

We search for this in every catastrophe. We cherish the idea that a phoenix will rise out of the ashes, peace out of war, a lesson out of a tragedy. It's the way we console ourselves for losses, and search for purpose in pain.

The world wrested the League of Nations from World War I, the United Nations from World War II. The Jews wrested Israel out of the Holocaust. Good out of evil.

Those who created Israel and grew up with it, fertilizing the desert with their own labor, understood that they had a deeper job, the task of creating a society better than the ones they'd left. The Jewish children in America who saved up their dimes to plant trees in Israel did so in the belief that the pioneer country was literally beating swords into plowshares.

It's no wonder that the existence of Israel -- even its military history until recently -- has been tied up with its righteousness. It's no wonder that many of these survivors are horrified to believe that some of their own leaders behaved like the "good Germans," didn't "know" about the Beirut massacre. Horrified to believe that they are no better than the rest.

Bernard Malamud raises the same questions about the possibility of a just society in his new book, "God's Grace," a fable published with eerie timing during this crisis. His simple, evocative tale opens after the ultimate holocaust -- a nuclear war followed by a second flood. Once again, there is a survivor, a single Jew, Calvin Cohn, who escapes destruction, through a "minuscule error" of God's.

Malamud's character also attempts to create a decent community out of a tiny remnant of living creatures, chimps, a gorilla, baboons. His commandments, stories and preachings to the members all come down to one lesson: "If we expect to go on living we have to be kind to each other."

Yet even there, in the imminent shadow of holocaust, with less than a dozen creatures left on Earth, the community doesn't hold. It's torn apart by anger, hatred, jealousy, suspicion, aggression. Destruction is so much easier than creation.

The 20th century track record of moral societies is not much to prompt optimism in Malamud. Nor, I suppose, in the rest of us. We wrested the League of Nations from World War I and lost it. We wrested the United Nations from World War II and watched it sink. We wrested Israel from the Holocaust and then are shocked when members of its government become accomplices to a massacre.

Yet if there's a tool that any community can use to wedge against moral decline, it's the measuring stick of right and wrong. This is the stick Israelis have always used to measure their differentness. The stick that 350,000 Israelis, one out of every 10, held on to at the Tel Aviv anti-Begin rally.

Now they are using the same tool in protest and prayer and politics. It may yet be a "sign" for the world, a battered sign for a more cynical world still trying to believe that good can yet come out of evil.