A black-robed, bearded old man straight out of the 18th century bows and nods in prayer. A bronzed young soldier, submachine gun slung over his shoulder, stands next to him. Alongside is a Lacoste-shirted American, a black-skinned Ethiopian Jew, or Falasha, a Dior-dressed Frenchman, and a Soviet refugee.
It is Friday night, the beginning of the Sabbath, and all these Jews, religious and not so religious, have come to the Western (or ''Wailing'') Wall. Set in Jerusalem's Old City, this 200-foot-high and 1,600-foot-long block of huge white stones is the only remnant of the ancient Jewish Temple.
For Jews, it is the holiest place - and the congregation from around the world symbolizes the appeal of modern Israel to the Jewish people.
Jewish ties to Israel are religious, social, cultural, and political. Of the world's estimated 13 million to 15 million Jews, only some 31/2 million live in Israel. Yet for most religious Jews outside the Holy Land, Israel is their spiritual home. And for many nonreligious Jews, Israel is the focal point of their Jewish identity, the guarantee of Jewish cultural survival.
For these reasons, world Jewry has united over the years to help Israel with moral and material support. True, there is a small minority of anti-Zionist Jews. And polls and surveys indicate that a growing number of Jews, inside and outside Israel, are critical of specific Israeli government policies - not least regarding Jewish settlements on the West Bank.
But interviews for this series suggest the great majority of Jews are likely to continue to support the country, at least publicly, almost regardless of what Israel does.
''It's a miracle,'' says Arthur Levine, president of the United Synagogues of America, the national coordinating organization of Conservative synagogues. ''Israel has completely changed for the better the situation of the Jew in the world. It's given us new pride and assurance, a focus for our energies. After wandering the earth for 2,000 years, there's a Jewish state, with everything, even a Jewish police force.''
The land of Israel has always been a central aspect of the Jewish faith. In Genesis, God is described as telling Abram, ''Get thee out of thy country ... unto a land that I will shew thee: And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing...'' (King James Version).
Chased from Israel 2,000 years ago, Jews did not forget the bond with the land. In the Diaspora, Jews continued to time their holidays to Middle East agricultural seasons; and, every Passover, Jews prayed, ''Next year in Jerusalem.'' And some Jewish communities continued to exist there.
Despite this deep, emotional link, not all Jews were lyrical about the possibility of a large-scale return when Zionists first proposed their plans at the end of the 19th century. In fact, the reaction among world Jewry to Theodor Herzl's call for a Jewish state was distinctly negative.
Many religious Jews decried Zionism's secular emphasis. Only the Messiah, they thought, could lead his people back to the land. Many nonreligious Jews believed in various forms of socialism that would make petty nationalistic, ethnic, or religious differences irrelevant.
Moreover, many Jews in both camps simply wanted to prosper in the West. They feared that any suggestion that they still had ties to Israel and the Jewish people would raise uncomfortable questions about their German, French, American, or other national loyalties.
For all of these reasons, most Jews, especially members of the large, liberal , Reform Judaism movement, were anti-Zionist well into the 1930s.
Then came the Holocaust - a turning point for many Jews who were undecided about Zionism. The result was increased support for the founding of Israel, an event which the United Nations finally sealed in 1948. And once the state itself was in place, and almost immediately under attack, more of the remaining undecided Jews joined the ranks of the pro-Zionists.
Most Orthodox Jews, for example, swallowed their doubts about Israel's secular founders and became convinced that the first step had been taken toward the Messianic age. Today, except for a small minority of ultra-Orthodox, religious Jews are among the most fervent Zionists, populating most of the West Bank settlements.
Any lingering doubts were extinguished for many Jews by the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The Arab threat portended another Holocaust, making them feel once again alone against the world.
The result was an outpouring of support for Israel from much of world Jewry. In the United States, thousands of Jews volunteered to go to Israel to help. In just two weeks, more than $100 million poured in to the Israel Emergency Fund. Even so assimilated a Jew as French intellectual Raymond Aron wrote that he was moved to recognize the power of his Jewishness for the first time.
''I suffer not because I have become a Zionist or Israeli,'' he wrote, ''but because an irresistible movement of solidarity rises within me. If this little state is destroyed, this crime would deprive me of the force to continue living.''
This history has evolved into world Jewry's overwhelming support for Israel. While Jewish leaders have criticized specific Israeli policies, no Jewish organization has abandoned Israel or reverted to anti-Zionism.
World Jewry's giving to the Jewish state has continued rising despite the world recession. Last year, according to Isidore Hamlin, vice-president of the Jewish Agency (the Israeli organization responsible for coordination and use of funds raised worldwide), Jews gave more than $300 million. Political lobbying on behalf of Israel also remains strong.
''Being a Jew today means having a strong sense of peoplehood more than following a traditional religion,'' Mr. Hamlin explains. ''We know not enough was done to help European Jews during World War II. The world committed a great evil. We won't be quiet again.''
Can Israel do anything and still retain this fervent support? Just about, American- and French-Jewish leaders conclude.
''As long as Israel remains a democracy, we will support it,'' explains Mr. Levine of the United Synagogues of America. ''Israel is an embattled state fighting to preserve Judaism in the world.''
To a certain extent, Israel's transformation after the 1967 victory from a beleaguered David to a regional Goliath - especially its occupation of the West Bank - has divided world Jewry.
An American Jewish Commmittee survey conducted last year indicated that a majority (51 percent) of American Jews believed, unlike the then Israeli government, that ''Israel should suspend the expansion of settlements in the West Bank to encourage peace negotiations.'' Only 28 percent disagreed. Among American-Jewish leaders, the ratio was even more strongly against the ruling Likud bloc policy - 55 percent to 25 percent.
Polls taken within Israel, too, have shown a similar shift in sentiment against further West Bank settlement.
In addition, the scope of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the siege of Beirut with its heavy civilian casualty toll, and the subsequent massacre of Palestinians by Christian militias with close connections to the Israeli military all produced sharp and sometimes public expressions of disapproval from some leading American Jews.
Finally, the very character of Israel appears to be changing as the proportion of Oriental Jews increases and that of European Jews declines. As this trend has become more visible in recent years, the mood of the country also has shifted rightward, away from the secular socialist traditions of its founders and toward the more religious, rightist, anti-Arab positions of Jews who have fled Arab or North African lands. Such positions are less acceptable to many American Jews, most of whom are of European background.
But the Diaspora support for Israel remains overwhelming, despite a lingering paradox: If world Jewry loves Israel so, why don't all Jews move to Israel? Behind the answer to this question lies a legacy of distrust between Israel and the Diaspora.
After the founding of the state of Israel, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion declared that all Zionists must move to Israel. One of the first actions of the Knesset (parliament) was to end restrictions on Jewish immigration. The ''law of return'' was proclaimed, entitling any Jew to immediate Israeli citizenship.
Nahum Goldmann, then president of the World Jewish Congress, disagreed. He argued that aiding the Jewish state morally and financially was enough to call oneself a Zionist. Prime Minister Ben-Gurion refused to accept this definition, and after a nasty dispute, Mr. Goldmann was forced to resign.
Behind the bickering lay an Israeli ambivalence toward the Diaspora that continues today. Zionists traditionally taught that exile not only represented a catastrophe, but also disgrace. The Israeli saw himself as the new Jew, independent, self-reliant, speaking a common language on a common land.
In contrast, the Israeli saw the Diaspora Jew as continuing to live as a small minority dependent on majority goodwill - a view that most Jews in the West consider out of date. Western Jews no longer feel obliged to gain local acceptance by disavowing outside ties. Instead, Israel represents for them a refuge from danger, a crucial new focus for their Jewish identities.
''Israel has become the religion of Western Jewry,'' says Roland Gittelsohn, rabbi emeritus of Boston's Temple Israel. ''It's the one constant left.''
This means that Jews give money, lobby, and visit Israel. Steven Cohen, a sociologist at Queens College in New York, estimates that 38 percent of American Jews have toured the Jewish state.
But visiting does not mean eventually settling there. Last year, only 3,350 American Jews moved to Israel, according to Rabbi David Geffen of the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel. Since the founding of the state, Rabbi Geffen says, only 60,000 Americans have moved there - despite the unusual benefit of being able to retain US citizenship while also becoming Israeli citizens. ''Almost all mass immigrations are a result of persecution or hard economic circumstances,'' he explains. ''American Jews are both affluent and secure.''
More than before, Israelis are willing to accept world Jewry on these terms. In a world they perceive as almost entirely hostile, they accept whatever support they can receive.
''Circumstances have forced us to become more tolerant that all Jews are not coming here,'' says Ze'ev Chafets, former Israeli government spokesman. ''But remember: Even though American Jews give us lots of money, we do the fighting.''
For their part, Diaspora Jews are more willing to accept this verdict. Without moving to Israel, they understand that they can play only a secondary role. Even their $300 million contribution to Israel is modest compared with US government aid - $2.6 billion for the 1984 fiscal year. And American Jewry, while able to influence the American political process, cannot control it.
''We aren't rich enough to totally support Israel, and we can't do everything we want, like stop the AWACS (surveillance plane) sale to Saudi Arabia,'' says Hamlin of the Jewish Agency. ''Only Israel can save itself and the Jewish people. World Jewish population.
1930 1982 World Total 15 million 13 million US 4,228,000 (1)* 5,705,000 (1) USSR** 2,927,000 (2) 1,630000,000 (3) Poland 2,845,000 (3) 4,800 Romania 900,000 (4) 30,000 Germany 564,000 (5) East 900 West 33,500 Hungary 477,000 (6) 63,000 Czechoslovakia 354,000 (7) 8,700 Britian 300,000 (8) 350,000 (5) Austria 250,000 (9) 7,500 France 220,000 (10) 530,000 (4) Argentina 200,000 233,000 (7)Palestine/Israel 161,000 3,374,000 (2) Canada 126,000 308,000 (6) South Africa 72,000 119,000 (8) Brazil 30,000 100,000 (9) Australia 22,000 75000 (10)
* Parenthetical numbers indicate wourld ranking for that year. In 1982, the nine largest Jewish populations made up 95 percent of world Jewish population.
** Includes Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, which were annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940.
Source: The American Jewish Year Book of 1930 and 1982. Figures given are for populations within international borders at the time.0 (5) East 900
Hungary 477,000 (6) 63,000
Czechoslovakia 354,000 (7) 8,700
Britain 300,000 (8) 350,000 (5)
Austria 250,000 (9) 7,500
France 220,000 (10) 530,000 (4)
Argentina 200,000 233,000 (7)
Palestine/Israel 161,000 3,374,000 (2)
Canada 126,000 308,000 (6)
South Africa 72,000 119,000 (8)
Brazil 30,000 100,000 (9)
Australia 22,000 75,000 (10)
* Parenthetical numbers indicate world ranking for that year.
In 1982, the nine largest Jewish populations made up 95
percent of world Jewish population.
** Includes Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, which were annexed
by the Soviet Union in 1940.