IT'S distressing to watch Jews and Roman Catholics - representatives of two of the world's great religions - squabble. It especially saddens when behind the bitterness lie values they hold in common: sacrifice, reverence, fidelity. So needless seems the anger to a sympathetic outsider that one suspects on both sides an almost willed hurt. At the center of the dispute is a convent for Carmelite nuns established in 1984 at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in Poland, where 4 million people died by Nazi hands. About 2.5 million of those were Jews; the rest included many Polish Catholics, among them priests and nuns. The nuns say they established the convent - before which they erected a large cross - to pray for all Auschwitz victims.
It seems a healing gesture, one that Jews could easily have appreciated. Many were offended, however, especially when some Belgian Catholics implied that the nuns were praying for the conversion of Jews. Increasingly, Jews saw the convent as a moral trespasser on ground hallowed by Jewish suffering.
Two years ago Catholic officials promised to move the convent a short distance by February 1989. But the deadline unaccountably passed without action.
In recent months, events have accelerated into a tightening spiral of anger, recriminations, and protests. Seven American Jews wrongly climbed a fence into the convent grounds to demonstrate; just as wrongly, Polish construction workers doused and beat them during the eviction. Catholic leaders have put the relocation plans on hold, and Poland's highest church official made a speech in which many Jews detected anti-Semitism. Last weekend Poland's only rabbi boycotted a joint prayer service commemorating the start of World War II.
Surely these people who, in their own traditions, worship the same God, a God of love and forgiveness, can end this fight. The Catholics should promptly fulfill their relocation commitment. Jews, though understandably mindful of Poland's record of anti-Semitism, could be more generous in their acknowledgment of Christian suffering at Auschwitz and their appraisal of the motive behind the convent.
It would be tragic if Poland, which has taken the lead in reversing one legacy of World War II, should allow the revival of its most hideous ghost.