BACK A COUPLE of years ago, Calvin Trillin, the New Yorker writer about food and whimsy, turned deadly serious and wrote an article about what he called the trivialization of the Holocaust. What he had in mind were people who call officious traffic cops "nazis" or who refer to the deaths of more than three people as "genocide." To these must now be aded, of all people, Menachem Begin.
It was Begin, the Israeli prime minister, who just recently called the Palestine Liberation Organization the "Arab SS," a reference to the Nazi storm troopers who, among other things, supervised the extermination camps.
In the same statement, Begin denounced the European Common Market declaration that called for a role for the PLO in the Middle East peace talks. Once again, Begin was linking a modern-day political development to the Nazi era, this time the infamous agreement by which the European democracies appeased Hitler.
A man is entitled to his opinion and Begin, Lord knows, has more than his share. He is, moreover, something of an expert on the Holocaust. He lived through it and like many Israelis carries its dark shadow in his soul. To him and his countrymen, the Holocaust is a ringing moral justification for the existence of Israel -- the ultimate lesson, a frontier, the unimaginable that became not imagined but routine. History will have no trouble understanding Menachem Begin.
But whether history will be charitable to Begin is open to doubt. It may instead judge him harshly for marshalling one of the world's most epic tragedies -- the systematic slaughter of European Jewry -- for what is essentially an argument of the moment: a struggle over who should speak for the Palestinians living in the occupied territories and elsewhere.
The European Common Market says it should be the PLO, an umbrellia organization of several Palestinian groups. The largest of these, Fatah, recently reiterated its determination to "liquidate the Zionist entity, politically, economically, militarily, culturally and ideologically" -- ringing. If hollow, words. The fact remains that Fatah is hardly the most radical of the Palestinian organizations and is in no position, at any rate, to do what it says it wants to do.
Nevertheless, you cannot blame Begin for taking the PLO at its word. In the context of four wars since the United Nations authorized Israeli independence, and the constant, ongoing terrorist activity against Israel, Fatah's decalration cannot be dismissed as mere talk.
But there is an enormous difference between Palestinian antipathy or hate for Israel and Nazi-style anti-Semitism. The former is based on very real, not imagined, historical developments that led, for one reason or another, to the exile of some 3 million Palestinians. They see themselves as the victims, maybe the last ones, of old-style European colonialism. Their hate, however ugly, is hardly irrational and it is a long way from hate Jews for being Jews.
Yet what Begin has done is blur those differences. He has cloaked himself and his cause in the mantle of the Jewish people -- in their history and their destiny. With both, he is taking liberties.
The erection and legitimization of the West Bank settlements, the support of extermist groups within Israel, the kidnapping and forced exile of the West Bank mayors and the constant references to the occupied territories in the Manifest Destiny language of the Bible -- Judea and Samaria -- has precious little to do with the Holocaust and a lot more to do with domestic Israeli politics and national security.
But Begin persists. He hysterically cites the Holocaust when it is not appropriate, as if by invoking the image, the world, like vampires retreating before the upraised cross, will shrink from criticizing Israel. It won't happen. Summoning up the Holocaust will not make the PLO go away, nor will it dignify political and strategic positions that to some observers are just plain undignified.
All it does, really, is trivialize the greatest tragedy to befall the Jewish people, diminishing it to a rhetorical weapon in the hands of yet another politician -- more noise in a very loud war of words.
The Holocaust, after all, does not belong to Menachem Begin -- not even to the state of Israel. It belongs to all of mankind and it can best be honored, not with words, but by pursuing justice.