David Harris, Washington representative for the American Jewish Committee, arrived last week at a private gathering of 40 Jewish professionals in Bethesda prepared to give his usual overview of current events. No one there wanted to talk about the presidential caucuses in Iowa. No one wanted to talk about U.S.-Soviet relations.

"The only thing, the only thing, on people's minds was the current situation in the Middle East," Harris recalled. Among American Jews these days, said Harris, "one sees no shortage of pain, anguish and discomfort."

The recent disturbances in the Israeli-occupied territories between rioting Palestinians and the Israeli army have provoked more widespread, gut-wrenching debate among American Jews than any event in recent history, according to dozens of Jews and Jewish leaders interviewed last week.

Some Jews who said they rarely, if ever, challenge Israel publicly are deeply distressed by Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin's statement Jan. 19 that the army would use "force, power and beatings," to smother Palestinian revolt.

Yet some of the same Jewish Americans who have questioned Israel's actions maintain that Arab hostility has left Israel few alternatives to its heavy-handed tactics. The rioting Palestinians "are not people joining hands and singing 'We Shall Overcome,' " said Morris B. Abram, president of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. "They're throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails."

The current conflict is particularly painful, they said, because Israel, founded 40 years ago on moral principles of freedom, equality and fair play, has employed what some perceive as immoral acts in order to protect itself. "Israel, which wanted to be a light unto the nations, has become one of the nations," said Hyman Bookbinder, longtime leader in the American Jewish Committee.

Jewish Americans are haunted by televised images of army soldiers beating or shooting disruptive Palestinian children. And they are weighed down by the seeming endlessness of a conflict that has claimed more than 50 Palestinian lives and injured countless others.

"I think it's terrible what {the Israeli soldiers} are doing and I don't know what else they could do," said Shirley Jacobs, an Alexandria homemaker interviewed after a class at the Jewish Community Center in Rockville.

Such frustration is compounded by the belief that Israel cannot unilaterally withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as it withdrew from Lebanon after the 1982 invasion, and be sure of the safety of its borders. "In Lebanon, the answers were relatively easy," said Eric Yoffie, a New York City rabbi and official in an affiliate organization of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

All those interviewed stressed that their underlying loyalty to Israel has not wavered, and the result of recent fund-raising campaigns seem to bear that out. United Jewish Appeal fund drives were held in several major cities around the country on Jan. 24 -- less than a week after Rabin's controversial statement -- and brought in considerably more money than last year, according to campaign officials.

Some Jews compare their angst to that felt by Americans in the waning years of the Vietnam war. Israel, they said, has had to prepare a military response that is inconsistent with its political philosophy, much as the United States did in Southeast Asia.

The current debate has surfaced among neighbors and in local congregations, Jewish newspapers and national Jewish organizations. Occasionally, discussions have resulted in blunt criticism; an editorial in The Baltimore Jewish Times, for example, denounced the beatings as "inhumane and indefensible." Other statements, including one last week by the Conference of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations, have been considerably more tempered.

Many American Jews save their thoughts for more private discussions. "This has brought out different factions among our friends," said Selma Dobbs of Potomac, who attends classes at the Jewish center in Rockville. Leaders of a Scarsdale, N.Y., synagogue attempted to get board approval for a resolution encouraging Israel to use restraint in responding to Arab demonstrators, according to Rabbi Jack Stern. But they failed after the resolution was watered down by differing opinions to the point that one member called it "moral schizophrenia."

Once they became aware of the depth of concern, Jewish organizations in the U.S. began hosting an increased number of visits from Israeli political leaders. Last week, the Washington office of the Anti-Defamation League arranged meetings for a military judge and for a leading member of Israel's Likud political party. Such visits have allowed American Jews to air their views privately, and afforded the Israelis a chance to explain their reprisal policy.

Non-Jews have been invited to some of these meetings as Jewish leaders address what they consider a serious public relations problem: a media picture of Israel as a no-holds-barred aggressor. Some Jewish leaders say this image has been distorted by a combination of superficialty and bias in the media and by an incompetent Israeli information program.

"We are very bad in our public relations work," said Asher Naim, Israel's minister for public affairs in the United States.

The current image crisis follows what some Jewish leaders said was an embarrassing display of immorality during the recent scandals on Wall Street involving Ivan Boesky and other prominent Jewish businessmen. "We aren't on a very good ethical roll," U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Abner J. Mikva told a group of about 100 rabbis last week at a Washington seminar, citing recently publicized cases of corruption in Philadelphia and Chicago, as well as on Wall Street.

Both Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the discovery of Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard four years later caused some American Jews to speak out against Israel. But Paul Flacks, executive vice president of the Zionist Organization of America, believes recent reaction to army beatings has been considerably stronger than those earlier responses.

Flacks, who criticizes other Jewish leaders for "washing their linen in public," suggests there may be political motives to some of the criticism. "The American Jewish community is primarily liberal Democrat," he said, "and they have an affinity for the Labor Party in Israel." If Labor leader and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres were prime minister instead of the Likud Party's Yitzhak Shamir, he said, "I don't think the anguish would be as pronounced or the criticism as severe."

Other leaders, however, say the current wave of discussion has more to do with maturity than politics. Jews who have become part of mainstream America are increasingly likely to speak out against wrongdoing wherever they see it. "I live in America," said Norman Michelson, a first-generation American Jew retired in Bethesda. "Why shouldn't I criticize?"

Five times since 1981, the American Jewish Committee, a national human relations organization, has asked American Jews whether they believe that Jews should refrain from publicly criticizing the policies of the Israeli government. In the most recent survey, in 1986, the sample rejected that view that Jews shouldn't criticize Israel by the widest margin ever -- 63 percent to 22 percent, with 16 percent not sure.

The Gallup Organization last month asked Jews in New York how they would assess Israel's handling of the riots. Thirty-nine percent said it was too harsh, 38 percent about right, 6 percent too lenient and 17 percent didn't know.

Michelson, a retired management consultant, shares some of that ambivalence. Relaxing in the Jewish Community Center in Rockville last week, he said he fears that the Palestinians will eventually control the West Bank and Gaza Strip and he understands why Israelis believe their state is endangered. But he doesn't like what Israel has become in order to protect itself. "It's not my picture of Israel," he said, "My picture is one of being kind and charitable."

"You no longer find unanimity and confidence in Israel's leaders," said Rabbi Kassel Abelson, president of the national assembly of Conservative rabbis.

Pearl Michelson of Bethesda doesn't go quite that far. Does she have confidence in Israel's leaders? she is asked.

"I'd like to think I do," she said.