When Pope John Paul went to the main synagogue in Rome last week, it was the first time in 2,000 years that a pope had set foot in a synagogue. The visit was a gracious -- one might even say a tender -- gesture of reconciliation and friendship. The pope spoke of common bonds and mutual respect. He called Jews "our dearly beloved brothers." And he gave a most strenuous denunciation of anti-Semitism.

But something was missing from his speech, something very large. There was not a word about the central reality of Jewish life today: not a single mention of Israel. It is as if an Anglican leader came to a great meeting of reconciliation at the Vatican, spoke at length, and failed to acknowledge the existence of the spiritual focus of the Catholic world, the pope.

John Paul's speech, and particularly its denunciation of anti-Semitism, was timeless. But that is one way of saying that it was anachronistic. Such a speech could have been given, say, in 1936.

In fact, such a speech would have done much good in 1936. But in 1986 it sadly misses the point. The pope's address was fighting what, for Jews, was the last war. Up to World War II, and for a millennium, the threat to Jewish existence did indeed come from religiously borne anti-Semitism in the heart of Christian Europe. After World War II, this is no longer true.

After Auschwitz, the Jewish civilization of Christian Europe is no more. The center of that civilization has moved -- once again and for the last time -- to its place of origin, Israel. Today, the great threat to Jewish existence is the threat to Israel.

The war against the Jews no longer takes the form of anti-Semitic pogroms in Europe. It takes the form of the vast campaign -- led by the Arab world, supported by the Soviet bloc, orchestrated by the United Nations and (apart from the United States) tolerated by the West -- to delegitimize and ultimately abolish Israel.

The pope did not mention Israel because it is a touchy subject for the Vatican. It does not recognize Israel, ostensibly because the Vatican wants Jerusalem internationalized and because Israel's borders are not internationally recognized.

But of the 90 countries the Vatican fully recognizes (including, for example, Taiwan), many have disputed borders. And the West, which also has problems with Jerusalem and with Israel's borders, takes the logical position of recognizing Israel within its 1967 frontiers, and declaring the disputed territories subject to negotiation. Alone among West European states, the Vatican rejects this approach and refuses to recognize Israel.

Why? For the Vatican, the existence of a reborn Jewish state is perhaps theologically and certainly politically problematic. In part it is a question of numbers: there are a hundred million Arabs and only 4 million Israelis. The Vatican, to which the practice of Realpolitik has never been very foreign, can count. There are 21 Arab states, some with sizable Christian minorities. The Jews have one state only.

That state did not merit a mention at the Rome synagogue. (There is a precedent here. Pope Paul VI visited Israel in 1964, and not once during his stay in the country did he ever pronounce the name Israel.) It was right and good of the pope to denounce anti-Semitism. But anti-Semitism is the "Jewish problem" of yesterday. Anti-Zionism -- the threat to the safety and legitimacy of Israel -- is the Jewish problem of today.

The pope addressed the wrong Jewish problem because he implicitly took the view in his synagogue speech that Jews are exclusively a religious community. Jews have never thought so. They have always considered thmselves a people.

To address Jews purely as a religious community is to deny their peoplehood. The pope obviously does so without malice. But others do so with malice. The charter of the PLO calls for the eradication of Israel and presents (Article 20) as a justification the claim that Jews belong to a religion, not a people. And religions have no claim to territory. (An awkward proposition, by the way, when applied to Vatican City.)

In 1982 the pope received the guardian of that charter, Yasser Arafat, which is bad enough. But ignoring Israel rhetorically and refusing to recognize Israel diplomatically compounds the injury. It gives unfortunate, if inadvertent, reinforcement to the premise that Jewish peoplehood is a fiction and thus Jewish statehood an error, or worse.

After nearly 2,000 years of Christian anti-Semitism -- the "discrimination, unjustified limitation of religious freedom, oppression" which the pope deplored in his Rome speech -- something more is needed than a call for mutual tolerance between Catholic and Jew. That something is recognition of Israel, now the hinge of Jewish life and hope. The least one can do for a "dearly beloved brother" is recognize what is most dear to him.