Paris — From the outside, the office of France's chief rabbi, Rene-Samuel Sirat, looks like a prison. A policeman stands guard, his submachine gun cocked. At the front gate, a doorman surveys visitors from a bulletproof box. Then a security guard emerges, pokes through handbags, and frisks visitors.
''We've had some anti-Semitic attacks,'' the rabbi explains.
That is an understatement. Four years ago, during the middle of a Sabbath service, a bomb blew up in the Rue Copernic Synagogue. Four were killed, 20 injured. Two summers ago, masked men burst into Jo Goldenberg's Jewish delicatessen and fired blindly, killing six and wounding another 22. There have been countless other attacks on Jewish targets.
''But I don't think that this has a relationship with anti-Semitism in France before 1945,'' Rabbi Sirat continues.
''Then, in 1939, there was an actual anti-Semitic party and a delegate was elected on an anti-Semitic platform. Today, there is none of this. The problem is elsewhere.''
Today's anti-Semitism is not primarily religious or racial, but political - tied to events in the Middle East, especially to criticism of Israel.
''By all standards, classical discrimination is declining,'' says Nathan Perlmutter, executive director of the Anti-Defamation League and author of the recent book, ''The Real Anti-Semitism.''
''Instead, inspired by Soviet and Arab propaganda, anti-Zionists throughout the world are using the old canards of anti-Semitism to push their message. The mask for present-day anti-Semitism is anti-Zionism.''
For many who are critical of Israeli actions, this argument is fallacious and dangerous. They see it as equating criticism of Israeli policy with anti-Zionism. They say it is only one step from there to equating legitimate criticism of Israeli government policy with anti-Semitism.
Indeed, these critics add, there is a risk that Jews who adopt such an all-embracing defense of Israel are drawing on a heavy history of persecution, culminating in the Holocaust, to avoid listening to legitimate criticism at all.
''It's infuriating,'' says Prof. Edward Said of Columbia University, a leading Palestinian nationalist. ''Jews use the anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism charge to deny me the right to criticize Israel.''
Most Jewish leaders admit that the Holocaust colors their fears, and that the distinction between anti-Semitism and opposition to Israeli policies can be blurry. Nonetheless, they echo Prof. Robert Wistrich of Hebrew University in Jerusalem who charges that, since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Israelis have increasingly been portrayed as militarists, Prussians of the Middle East, colonial occupiers, and ultimately even as fascist imperialists aiming at the ''genocide'' of the ''Palestinian people.''
Such statements, Professor Wistrich says, have turned Israel into a pariah state, separate from the family of nations, just as the Jew used to be separated by the anti-Semite from the family of men.
Zionism, in turn, says Prof. Yonathan Manor of Hebrew University, has become equated with a dangerous form of racism. This equation, he says, makes the birth of Israel illegitimate, not the fulfillment of a national liberation movement.
''No other state's legitimacy is questioned like that,'' says Professor Manor , ''not even Germany's, even after all that happened during World War II.''
Some of Israel's critics feel uncomfortable with such sweeping assertions. Israelis themselves, they say, use highly charged statements in attacking government policies. And if Israel has become a pariah, they ask, is not this at least in part because of Israeli policies and actions?
However, more and more Jews and leading scholars of anti-Semitism agree with Professors Wistrich and Manor that harsh criticism of the Jewish state has laid the foundations for a new form of anti-Jewish hatred.
In Israel, experts at Hebrew University and Yad Vashem, the state memorial to the Holocaust, are preparing books on the issue.
In France, the author of a respected multivolume study of anti-Semitism, Leon Poliakov, recently published a book called ''From Moscow to Beirut'' which focuses on the growth of anti-Zionist propaganda.
In the United States, Mr. Perlmutter of the Anti-Defamation League is echoed by Jews across the political and social spectrum. Decline in traditional discrimination
Perlmutter's argument that anti-Zionism is a new form of anti-Semitism begins , ironically, by noting the decline in traditional discrimination against Jews. A 1952 Gallup poll found that one-third of the American public agreed with the stereotype that Jews are too powerful. In 1979, the same poll showed that this figure had dropped to 12 percent.
In France, too, the state polling agency has found that Jews are better accepted. In 1946, only 37 percent of Frenchmen considered Jews to be ''French citizens like everyone else.'' In 1980, that figure had risen to 87 percent.
Perlmutter reports, moreover, that anti-Semitic vandalism and attacks in the United States have dropped sharply in the past two years. In addition, he says, other types of anti-Jewish bigotry common before World War II - quotas on admission to Ivy League colleges, restrictions on jobs in medicine, law, engineering, and teaching, and even access to hotels - have just about disappeared.
''I remember hotel signs saying 'no dogs, no Jews,' '' Perlmutter says. ''Thankfully, these are all relics of the past.''
Most such scholars trace the worldwide decline in this traditional form of anti-Semitism to World War II. In the wake of the Holocaust, it became taboo to attack Jews. Many countries have adopted laws against racism and inciting racial hatred.
Still, many Jews remain wary. They see anti-Zionism as the new anti-Semitic threat - fueled not least by the Soviet Union. Russia's history of anti-Semitism
Russia has a long-documented history of anti-Semitism. The Czar's pogroms at the turn of this century were largely responsible for persuading large numbers of Jews to emigrate to the United States or Palestine.
Originally, the Soviet Union favored the Zionist project. It voted for the creation of Israel in 1948. But as the Arab-Israeli conflict hardened, the Soviets took the Arab side.
Then, following the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, the Kremlin leaders found themselves with thousands of Soviet Jews demanding exit visas from an unwilling government. To discredit these Jews, the Soviet government published more anti-Zionist literature. Professor Manor cites 180 such works released in the Soviet Union between 1967 and 1978.
Later, as the Kremlin cracked down on Jewish emigration, bringing it to a virtual halt, aspiring emigrants were charged with being ''agents of foreign countries'' or ''enemies of socialism'' - convenient covers, Manor and other Jews believe, for anti-Semitism based on anti-Zionism.
''Under the Czar, the Jew was prosecuted for being a Bolshevik,'' says Leon Abramowicz of the Paris office of the Anti-Defamation League.
''Under Stalin, he was tried as the cosmopolitan agent of capitalism. And today, he is being tried for being a Zionist.''
The Arabs, say many Jews, echo similar themes. According to both Jewish and Arab scholars, Arabs were ambivalent, but not overtly hostile, to the Jews before the creation of Israel. This changed with the establishment of the state of Israel.
''The Jew became the enemy,'' says Maxime Rodinson, a Jewish professor of Islam and a leading French opponent of Israel. ''At first, distinctions were made between Zionists and Jews. But as the tension mounted, it became harder to make that distinction.'' Zionism said to be linked with racism
In 1975, the anti-Zionist campaign produced the most dramatic and, to Jews, most insulting indictment yet. The United Nations General Assembly - despite vigorous dissent from Western and some other countries - declared Zionism to be a form of racism.
''By linking Zionism with imperialism or racism, the charges found a resonance in the third world,'' Professor Manor asserts.
He goes on to suggest that, following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 , some West Europeans and Americans may also have become susceptible to such arguments. He points out that some members of the Western mass media, in covering or commenting upon the Lebanon invasion, equated Beirut with the Warsaw ghetto, Prime Minister Menachem Begin with Hitler, the Israelis with the Nazis.
''Lebanon was the key,'' concurs Perlmutter of the Anti-Defamation League. ''Likening Israel to the Nazis is at odds with reality. All it does is stir up anti-Semitism.'' Media criticized for coverage of Israel
Critics of the Israeli invasion, however, charge that this argument was a smokescreen put up to evade real scrutiny of the Israeli actions.
''No Jew talked about what happened in Lebanon, only about what happened in the press,'' says Professor Rodinson. ''That was shameful. It's a big alibi.''
A number of prominent Jews agree with this scolding. The former president of the American Jewish Congress, Arthur Hertzberg, for example, believes the tendency to dismiss criticism of Israel is dangerous both for the Jewish state and for Jews in the West.
''Because there's such a strong sense that the world will continue to treat Jews as different, we retreat into a new ghetto and define our Judaism by that paranoia,'' he says. ''What type of Jewish identity is that?''
Such non-Jewish critics of Israel and Zionism as Edward Said go much further. In forming a state where Jews have greater rights than non-Jews, Professor Said says, Israel is indeed racist. He points in particular to the ''law of return,'' the legislation assuring any Jew the right to Israeli citizenship. ''In Israel, Arabs don't have immigration rights,'' he says.
''Any state which prescribes a distinction between Jews and non-Jews to the detriment of one of the two parties is practicing a form of discrimination.''
Mr. Said's criticisms spark immediate censure from many Jews. Some of them consider such remarks anti-Semitic, because they question the right of Jews to have their own state.
''Political criticism of Israel is OK,'' says Isidore Hamlin, vice-president of the Jewish Agency.
''But the most people like Said can say is that Israel is exclusivist - it wasn't created like America to take in all the oppressed. It was created to help Jews. That doesn't make it racist or illegitimate.''
The key to understanding Jewish fears lies in this statement. Despite the growing danger Jews perceive in anti-Zionism, interviews for this series suggest that few Jews blame Israel - either its existence or its actions - for increasing prejudice against them. Instead, they say attacks against Jewish targets such as those at Rue Copernic and Goldenberg's are tied directly to Arab terrorism imported from the Middle East. They do not believe that a change in Israeli actions, or even peace with the Palestinians, will end such anti-Jewish violence.
''I've never heard a Jew blame Israel or say Israel has put his life in danger,'' says Ze'ev Chafets, former Israeli government spokesman.
''Israel didn't exist for 2,000 years and anti-Semitism flourished. Israel didn't invent it.''
The Jewish response to anti-Zionism must be understood in light of this long history.
Is it a new form of Jewish paranoia, as observers as diverse as Hertzberg and Said have been moved to suggest?
Perhaps. But, to most Jews, the accusation that it is paranoia ignores the deep feelings that those with burned fingers are more sensitive to fire. Jewish contribution to Western civilization
The Jewish contribution to Western civilization has been incalculable. Jewish ideas are found everywhere, from the monotheism passed along to Christianity and Islam to the treasured secular value imprinted on the Liberty Bell, ''Proclaim liberty throughout the land.''
Jewish individuals have also been at the cutting edge of human thought, culture, and endeavor: Einstein, Epstein, Mendelssohn, Offenbach, Disraeli, Marx , and Freud are just a few examples.
Yet the Jewish people have been subjected to some of history's most terrible examples of persecution and genocide.
''Before World War II, we believed in justice, tolerance, world progress,'' says Prof. Yisrael Gutman, a specialist in prewar Polish Jewry and a concentration camp survivor. ''We believed anti-Semitism would disappear.''
He speaks these words from his office at Yad Vashem, the memorial center in Jerusalem dedicated to the impossible task of tracing and registering the name of every single man, woman, and child killed in the Holocaust.
Surrounded by young trees, Yad Vashem is a massive building set on a vast paved terrace facing the pink hills of Judea.
The interior is dark. A single torch dimly lights the inscriptions carved into stone: the names of the Nazi concentration camps - Drancy, Bergen-Belson, Auschwitz....
The Holocaust pervades the national consciousness. A day of mourning is set aside each year for its victims.
At the sound of air-raid sirens, the country falls silent for a full two minutes. Oblivious to the morning rush hour, traffic stops, pedestrians freeze. All entertainment spots are closed. The papers publish special supplements, and television broadcasts special memorial shows. Thousands gather at Yad Vashem.
''I hope the Holocaust was a one-time, unique, historical phenomenon,'' Professor Gutman concludes. He says he would like to believe once again in justice, tolerance, and world progress. ''But we cannot forget.'' WHAT ARE THE RIGHTS OF ARABS IN THE JEWISH STATE OF ISRAEL?
Citizenship. Under the ''law of return,'' all Jews are automatically accorded the right to become Israeli citizens. Arabs and other non-Jews also may become citizens, but not automatically under the law of return.
Voting. All Israeli citizens - Jewish, Arab, Christian, etc. - have the right to vote and run for office in Israel. Jewish settlers in occupied territories have voting rights in Israel, while other residents of such areas do not.
Housing. A person can live wherever he wants. In practice, though, Jews and Arabs have traditionally lived apart and usually continue to do so.
Army service. Men must serve 3 years; women, 2 years. Individual Druze and religious Jews may request exemption. Arabs are exempt from service, which means they do not get veterans' benefits - e.g., housing allowances and educational scholarships. But most Arabs would not want to serve in the Army anyway and would have trouble gaining security clearance if they chose to.
Jobs. Some private employers discriminate against Arabs by requiring job applicants to have served in the Army. Arabs are not allowed to hold jobs related to security, although most Arabs would not be interested in holding such jobs. Arabs are eligible for welfare.
Education. Arabs as well as Jews attend Israeli universities. Sometimes Arabs have more difficulty being accepted in programs in engineering, chemistry, and physics because such studies usually lead to security-related jobs. Most grade schools are segregated by choice of both Arabs and Jews.
Taxes. By law Arabs are taxed, but in practice tax collectors make less of an effort to collect taxes from Arabs than from Jews.