HE WAS AN OLD MAN. He came up with the others and he waved his fist at me, shouting his rage with such a fury that I feared for his health. He shouted the names of Eastern European towns and he shouted the Holocaust and he shouted the concentration camps. He took his history and flung it in my face.

I tried to say something. I was on a platform, have just finished a speech, and I had said something about how I thought the Nazis had a right to march in Skokie, Ill. - that is what triggered the shouting. And now the man was below me, looking up at me on the platform, and his face was flushed red and people were taking me by the arm and leading me away. They took me down a stairway so dark you had to feel for the steps with your feet, and on the way one of them said he was sorry for what happened and I started to say that I was sorry, too, but I wasn't. Instead, I was sad.

I bring this up now because it is as good a way is any to begin a column about the controversial Israeli settlements in the occupied Arab lands. This is a divisive issue, both here and in Israel, and it has become something of a thorn between the Carter administration and the government of Menachem Begin and between the Israelis and the Arabs. It is by anyone's definition a matter of power politics - of diplomacy and armies and things geopolitical. It is also a matter of insense emotion.

For many people that is the bottom line. Call it what you want, they say, the issue is really security. It has to do with the fact that Begin and others of his generation escaped from Poland before World War II and when the war was over there was nothing left. There were camps like Auschwitz and Treblinka and they consumed the lives of 6 million people - relatives and friends and lovers and enemies and, in the end, a whole civiliation. Someone said at the time that there could never again be poetry, but there is. What there could never be was an explanation.

You must give way before the people who went through this. You must give way to them and to the people who have fought four Middle Eastern wars. You must be able to look at things the way they do, to boil all the complexities down to a matter of survival - to say that there is no one in, say. Baghdad, who fears for his life becasue of Israel but that is certainly not true the other way around. That is the bottom line. Survival always is.

So what we are talking about is settlements in the Sinai and on the West Bank of the Jordan River and an Israeli policy that has allowed them to exist. Three settlements were authorized just this year. To some the settlements are explained in terms that can be categorized as religious manifest destiny - the notion that Israel has some sort of right to return to the borders it had in Biblical times. There is no arguing religion with anyone, but suffice it to say the the Bible is too many things to too many people. Not so long ago it was being cited in defense of racial segregation. At the very least it lacks the precision of, say, a peace treaty.

What is not in dispute is that the settlements have become a sticking point in the Mideast negotiations and a matter of disagreement between the Carter administration and the Begin government. There is some dispute on the matter, but the Carter administration cleary feels that the Begin government broke its pledge when it authorized three more settlements in January. It was one of the few times, the White House will tell you, when the American Jewish community split on an issue relating to Israel. It took the proposed arms sale to Egypt and Saudi Arabia to close the ranks once again.

Relations with the United States are one thing, with the Arab world something else again. The settlements, especially the civillian settlements on the West Bank, are a red flag to the Arabs. They smack of permanence, of intransigence, of a sort of messianic zeal. They are located on land that must, in the long run, be returned to the Arabs, on land that the American government and a substantial number of Israelis consider Arab by right. Their presence looks to the Arabs like something of an insult.

Well, it is probably nothing of the sort. It is probably something else instead - that quest for security that we mentioned earlier - a way of looking at the world conditioned on events so horrible that it is hard to believe they actually happened. Looking at it through the eyes of Begin, you can understand. You, too, would probably say you want more than pledges and promises and nice words to Barbara Walters. You, too, might hang tough, but in doing that you would be doing nothing to bring anyone back to the negotiation table - doing nothing to advance the cause of peace. You can understand why they do what they do.

Andyou can understand why they are wrong.