Pope John Paul II's uncritical reception of Austrian President Kurt Waldheim at the Vatican yesterday has jeopardized more than 20 years of Catholic-Jewish dialogue and threatens interfaith understanding, Jewish leaders said.

Two major Jewish organizations have withdrawn from a planned meeting with the pontiff in Miami in September and others are considering such a move.

The pope's praise for Waldheim's "international life as a diplomat . . . always devoted to securing peace among peoples" was widely viewed by Jewish leaders as a "whitewash" of charges that he was involved in sending Jews and others to Nazi death camps while an officer in the German Army.

Calling the situation "grim and troublesome," Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum of the American Jewish Committee said, "Waldheim has hijacked the pope and the Vatican for his purposes."

For Jews, the issue is "not Waldheim the man, but Waldheim the symbol he has become," said Rabbi Henry Siegman, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, one of the organizations withdrawing its sponsorship of the Miami meeting.

Siegman said the pontiff's failure to recognize this symbolism is a "failure of the moral imagination by the custodian of the Catholic conscience . . . . What is so terribly dismaying is that this man who has become the symbol {of the Holocaust} . . . is just another unpleasant head of state to the Vatican."

Msgr. Daniel Hoye, general secretary of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops here, declined to comment substantively on the reaction of Jewish leaders. "At this time, emotions are running very high," he said. "It's best to let things cool off before statements are made."

Burton S. Levinson, national chairman of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, which also is reconsidering its participation in the Miami meeting, called it "ironic that the pope, not only a head of state but a world religious leader, should be the first to receive" Waldheim. The United States and most European countries have barred Waldheim's entry.

Tanenbaum called the pope's reception of Waldheim "the beginning of a form of historical revisionism" that plays down or even denies the horrors of the Holocaust, in which at least 6 million Jews were murdered. "And that may be the most dangerous thing that happened," he said.

Rabbi Mordecai Waxman, a former president of the Synagogue Council of America, an umbrella organization including the three religious denominations of Judaism, said that the organization, "subject to other developments, does not now propose to be in Miami" for the meeting with the pope.

Tanenbaum, who has been deeply involved in Catholic-Jewish conversations for more than 25 years, said "there is a sense of betrayal" as a result of the Waldheim-Vatican meeting.

Siegman said he and other Jewish leaders "would be glad to meet the pope to discuss substantive issues." The "most central" he said, is "what the Holocaust means to the Catholic Church," including an acknowledgment of the failure of the institution to stand up to Hitler. "The official church was largely silent . . . and largely abandoned the Jews to their agony," he said.

Unless the Catholic Church "does respond" to these issues raised by the Jewish community, he said, "the damage to the dialogue will be serious and long lasting and will take a very long time to recover."