Norman Podhoretz, editor of Commentary magazine, is widely recognized as a leading intellectual defender of Israel in the United States. In an article in the September issue of his magazine he cited a long list of examples of what he considered excessive or unfair criticism of Israel incident to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
There were several quotations from this writer, along with quotations from other commentators including Mary McGrory and Alfred Friendly in the Washington Post, Anthony Lewis in the New York Times, George Ball, a former undersecretary of state, and Hodding Carter in the Wall Street Journal. (There were many more.)
Mr. Podhoretz concludes his list of citations with a reference to a column by Mary McGrory comparing the bombing of Beirut with the American bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He then writes:
''Obviously a reaction like this can no more have been provoked by the facts of Israel's behavior than the comparisons of Israel with Nazi Germany. Nor can the relatively milder denunciations of Israel as comparable to Sparta or Haiti or Vietnam be taken as a rational response to what Israel has done. What then can explain them?
''In thinking about this question while reading through dozens of vitriolic attacks on Israel,'' Mr. Podhoretz continues, ''I have resisted the answer that nevertheless leaps irresistibly into the mind. This answer, of course, is that we are dealing here with an eruption of anti-Semitism.''
Mr. Podhoretz has identified a phenomenon correctly, but jumped at a mistaken assumption about its cause. He has labeled anti-Semitism a reaction throughout the ranks of American journalists to a military campaign by Israeli armed forces which can in no way be justified as defensive. It has been called an ''aggression'' by Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, a staunch defender of Israel. It is contrary to the official policy of the US government. It crossed the path of President Reagan's attempt to revive the Camp David process with his own ''new start'' toward peace in the Middle East.
It is certainly not irrational for a large number of prominent American journalists to side with their own government in a case where a client state, dependent heavily on American subsidies, undertakes a military campaign contrary to the wishes and interests of the US, a campaign which is manifestly aggressive in character and which the same journalists would criticize and condemn were it perpetrated by the Soviet Union, by any Soviet client, or by anyone else.
But it is unusual for many of the journalists named in Mr. Podhoretz's complaint to treat Israel as though it were no better than any other state.
The plain fact is that Israel has long enjoyed a special immunity from criticism. Some pro-Israel defenders have complained that Israel's critics are using a double standard. They say the critics expect Israel to be more moral than other countries. This is true of Jewish critics of Israel - including 400, 000 protest marchers in Jerusalem - who have been appalled by the consequences of the invasion of Lebanon. They expected Israel to be more moral than other countries. Mr. Podhoretz is arguing, in effect, that Israel is entitled to be just as amoral as anyone else.
It is not true of non-Jewish critics of Israel who have from the beginning of the Jewish state in Palestine tended to be sympathetic toward Israel and to give it the benefit of the doubt. There has been a further ingredient. Attitude toward Israel has been monitored by an ever vigilant pro-Israel lobby. A favorable treatment of news touching Israel has been encouraged and sustained by every device of the lobbyist from persuasion through harassment to, in this case , the final charge of anti-Semitism. There has been pent-up resentment against that pressure. It has broken loose.
Mr. Podhoretz has been accustomed to special and favorable treatment for Israel. The invasion of Lebanon has broken the habit of treating Israel more gently than any other country. Writers who have been restraining their adjectives and adverbs when the subject is Israel, have let themselves go. They are examining the behavior of Israel as critically and as vigorously as they would were the invasion being done by a communist country.
The invasion of Lebanon was presumably intended to strengthen the position of Israel in its neighborhood and in the world. It has had many effects. One effect has been to destroy Israel's sacrosanct status in American journalism. The special immunity is gone.