I was sitting in a faculty dinning room at Harvard University the other day, talking with someone over lunch, when suddenly words jumped out at me from a nearby conversation: "Jew," "Zionist," "Jewish lobby." At first the context was the Middle East, but then, swiftly and as if logically, the subject shifted to President Reagan's trip to Bitburg. A voice at the table boomed: the controversy, he said, was the work of "professional Zionists."

The professor -- for that's what he turned out to be -- was no shrinking violet when it came to repugnant statements. He spoke loudly, apparently confident that he would offend no one. The "professional Zionists" had gone to Bitburg, he said. They had uncovered the fact that members of the Waffen SS were buried there. If they had not done so, no one would have known, and the president's visit would have gone off without a hitch. To this wholly concocted version of events, the other three men at his table nodded, and then they all went on to the subject of what they would be doing in the summer.

There have been several reports, all citing anecdotal evidence, that the president's trip triggered a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Germany, including the feeling that Jews there (and here) are too influential, somehow illegitimately so. Now comes the Harvard professor to suggest that the phenomenon is not limited to Germany.

For additional evidence, you need only check a Washington Post-ABC poll that found that 60 percent of Americans thought Jewish leaders were "making too big a deal out of Reagan's visit." There may or may not be in that a suggestion of excessive Jewish influence, but it's clear that the professor needed no poll to know that it was safe to speak out -- and loudly at that.

It would be unfair to blame this result of the Bitburg trip on the president himself -- to suggest that this is something he anticipated or desired. It is not unfair to suggest, though, that what he intended to be an exercise in leadership turned out to be just the opposite. By steadfastly insisting on honoring his personal committment to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, he managed to turn a moral question into an ethnic squabble -- a contest between the president of the United States with supposedly high and lofty goals and a contentious ethnic group persuing its own narrow interests.

The Watergate analogy is instructive here: what mattered most about Bitburg was not the way it began but the way it's ended. In defending his decision, the president bit by bit denigrated and belittled the argument of his critics, making them seem -- the polls now tell us -- unreasonable. Probably inadvertently, he turned their pain into a matter of German-American reconciliation, Pershing missiles -- all sorts of things including, finally, a cockeyed reading of history. He did not either argue or refute his critics' case but instead elided them with a babble of sentimentality.

Maybe inescapably, certainly inadvertently, the president put his Jewish critics into a corner that is not without historical and tragic precedent. To anti-Semites and others, it seemed that Jews were quarreling with national goals because they were Jews and not, as was the case, because they were Americans who for whatever reason thought the president was making a mistake.

There is no undoing Bitburg, but that does not mean that the lingering effect of it should be ignored. In the one area in which he is supremely gifted, forging national unity, the president failed -- leaving anti-Semites gloating and leaving Jews bruised and scared. Bitburg excited the anti-Semitic imagination, and you don't have to go to Harvard to know it. But it helps, alas, it helps.