The Rev. Jesse Jackson, a Democratic candidate for the presidency of the United States, is one of the more prominent and also sometimes controversial leaders in the black community. He made top headlines recently when he went to Syria at the invitation of President Assad of that country and brought home from a military prison US Navy Lt. Robert Goodman.
The exploit won praise from President Reagan (who perhaps did not mind helping a candidacy which might complicate political life for Democratic front-runner Walter Mondale). The President welcomed Lieutenant Goodman and rival candidate Jackson in the Rose Garden at the White House.
Candidate Jackson has subsequently gained more headlines by the disclosure that in 1980 an organization which he founded and used as his original political launching pad, called PUSH (People United to Serve Humanity), has received $200, 000 from the Arab League, an organization of Arab countries. There was another contribution to PUSH of $350,000 which was given anonymously. The record does not yet show its origin.
The question was immediately raised whether it was right and proper for an organization associated with Mr. Jackson to receive funds from the Arab League.
Several leaders of Jewish organizations criticized Mr. Jackson on the ground that ''the Arab League is not an American organization.''
The Jackson reply was that PUSH itself is not a political organization, but a nonprofit educational and charitable foundation concerned primarily with human rights. The funds were not given to him as a political candidate. He was not a candidate when the gift was made in 1980. He resigned from PUSH when he declared his candidacy.
He said: ''If the Arab League can contribute to Harvard and Georgetown and other institutions of education, why can they not contribute to the PUSH Foundation?''
The contributions to PUSH were unquestionably legal. No one seriously claims otherwise. Nor is there evidence on the public record that Arab League funds have been contributed to the actual Jackson political candidacy.
At the time of the trip to Damascus the Syrian government extended hospitality in Damascus to the Jackson party. In effect, it picked up the hotel bill which was apparently repaid after the event.
Mr. Jackson and his supporters have made the point that Jewish organizations make large political contributions and so why shouldn't Arab organizations do the same. Jewish organizations respond with the assertion that Jewish contributions to American political campaigns come from American citizens.
Herewith are some facts bearing on this controversy.
The Arab League contribution to PUSH was made openly and publicly in 1980, along with contributions to other educational and charitable institutions. It was not suddenly uncovered in late January 1984. There is no charge on the public record that the Arab League or other Arab sources have made campaign contributions to the political campaign of Jesse Jackson, or of any other American political figure.
The Arab countries are at a disadvantage in getting their case before the American public and in Congress. There are negligible numbers of American citizens of Arab background. There are about 6 million Americans of Jewish background. Many of these contribute generously to political organizations devoted to the welfare of Israel.
There are 31 Jewish political action committees which are active in supporting candidates for the Senate and House of Representatives who favor Israel. These PACs raised $1.67 million for the 1982 congressional midterm campaign. Of this amount $104,325 was spent in 1980 to defeat Republican Rep. Paul Findley of Illinois. Mr. Findley had been the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee that authorizes aid to Israel.
Mr. Findley had become a critic of Israel. He favored an ''evenhanded'' American attitude in the Middle East. His successful Democratic rival, Richard Durbin, received campaign contributions from all of the 31 Jewish PACs.
There are no similar Arab PACs to help support the Arab cause in the US.