Menachem Begin could not make an anti-Semite out of me.

I know that he is not all Jews, not even some Jews and not even a typical Jew, whatever that might be. I know that he is one man and not a nation, not to mention a whole people.

To go to a real extreme, I know the same thing about Idi Amin. He did not get me to hate Africans. Muammar Qaddafi has not made me anti-Arab and Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin and the Boston Strangler have not made me hate Christians.

But for some reason, Menachem Begin is being cited for a perceived rise in anti-Semitism. Some politicians say that a combination of Begin and the intensive lobbying on the AWACS issue was responsible for a backlash against Israel and and an increase in anti-Semitism. But to blame Begin for anti-Semitism is like blaming the poor for poverty. Without them, of course, there wouldn't be any.

The awful truth is that anti-Semitism is a cultural disease that lurks beneath the surface -- dormant, maybe, but always there. Given the right set of circumstances, the right triggering mechanism -- for instance, some thoughtless statements by politicians -- it rears its ugly head. No one is entitled to be surprised when this happens. After a couple of thousand years of anti-Semitism, we all ought to know what to expect.

This is why politicians especially must measure their words, why precision is to be valued and generalizations avoided, why distinctions have to be made between Israel and Jews -- why a country, a religion, a people, a government should not be discussed as if it were all the same thing. In a dry forest, one does not play with matches. There is no drier forest than an emotional debate involving Jews, Israel, foreign policy, lobbying and the source of oil.

But first Ronald Reagan and then Richard Nixon couched the AWACS fight as a struggle between Israel and America -- Reagan or Begin, as the saying goes. It was, of course, partially that. But there were a lot of other struggles going on -- for instance, Congress vs. the executive branch -- but what it really came down to was a struggle between people of differing views about what is good for America. To simplify it as a struggle between an American president and a foreign leader with what was perceived as a fifth column in this country, was more than simply wrong -- it was an inadvertant way of fanning the flames of anti-Semitism.

After all, once the issue was defined as a struggle between the American president and the Israeli prime minister, Jews who chose to fight the AWACS sale seemed to be choosing to fight their own country. Here was the old canard of dual loyalty in a a nutshell, a predicament to delight any anti-Semite. A non-Jew could oppose the AWACS sale on the merits, but if a Jew did the same thing, he was open to charges of choosing Israel over America. The facts are, though, that a lot of non-Jews thought selling AWACS to the Saudis was a terrible idea, while some Jews (including one senator and one former secretary of state) favored it.

That Richard Nixon should have raised the bogus issue of confused loyalties, is no surprise -- and really of no great importance. Time and time again in his career he defined his side as the American one and the other side as, well, something else.

Ronald Reagan is a different matter entirely. He is the president, and what he does matters greatly. Yet there was no protest from him when his staff either leaked or confirmed the rumor that an opponent of the AWACS sale was more concerned with Jewish political contributions than the welfare of his country. And, second, in true Nixonian fashion, he defined the issue as basically a question of Americanism: "It is not the business of other nations to make American foreign policy."

There is in all of this an echo. The way Reagan fights is to personalize the issue. He did this with the Berkeley students and then later with welfare chiselers. This is his genius, his way of simplifying issues -- of making them understandable both to the public and to himself. It is very effective, but when this technique is applied where Jews or, for that matter, blacks, are involved, he ought to be very careful. He is tapping into a vein of hate that is an uncontainable as it is illogical. History tells us that.

After all, it's been done before.