Which came first - the Passamaquoddy Indians or the settlers of Maine? The Basque people or the Spanish state? The Palestinian Arabs or the Palestinian Jews? From Molucca to Rhodesia to Quebec to Northern Ireland and back again, it sometimes seem as if all humankind were suddently engaged in a great global title search. To whom did the land originally belong? On which group does ancient history confer modern rights - or at least modern grievances because those rights are being denied? The trend is there. It is growing. And it is, in my view, treacherous.

I got to thinking about all this courtesy of Menachem Begin, the Israeli election victor who has been citing Scripture as the basis of both the Israeli national state and his own conception of its proper boundaries. "I understand he knows the Bible by heart," Begin said of Jimmy Carter, "so he knows to whom this country by rights belong." Begin was correct in assuming that Carter himself has dallied with this fundamentalist view of Israel ("I think it was a fulfillment of Bible prophecy to have Israel established as a nation.") But that does not make either man's vision any less feeble or risky as a rationale for the existence of a modern state.

If you want to know why this so, only ask yourself whether Israel would be better off if 1) its existence were acceptable only to those who believe in the Old Testament, 2) its continuance as a nation could be called into question by the unexpected and revolutionary finding of some archeological dig or 3) the international community, weak as its support for Israel has become, were made to feel free of any responsibility at all, on the theory that it was God, not the U.N. or the West, with whom the modern state of Israel had negotiated its charter.

The Israel case may be the most dramatic and the most poigant. But others run it a close second, and I would argue that none of the ethnic confrontations we are now witnessing over borders, cultural sovereignty, self-determination and the rest can be conclusively or fairly resolved by recourse to the dustier archives. For like that stereotypical white man of the movies, history peaks with forked tongue. The Mongols, the Seljuk and Ottoman Turks, the Romans, the Arabs, the Jews, the British, the French (including Napoleon himself) - I am just naming of a few of those who have exercised sovereign rights in the region we call the Middle East at some point in recorded history. Something comparable can be done with North Africa, the Iberain peninsula, the Indian subcontinent, the Balkans and innumerable other land masses where we today see the vestiges of departed cultures - both their artistic achievements and their racial and religious animosities.

Who is to sit on the court of claims that will sort out the real-estate implications of all this? Pope Paul, Fidel Castro, Kurt Waldheim, Margaret Mead and a panel of anthropologists? In fact, not even colonial history lends itself to quick, clean judgments as to who is entitled to what. Surely 400 and 500-year-old settlements, shifting population movements and centuries' worth of racial and ethnic intermingling in some places, and implicit social bargains in others, argue against summary expulsions of people by color, heritage or class. This is not just a North-South, black-white problem. In Yugoslavia and in eastern Canada type portions of the population regard themselves as victims of oppressive and historically unjustified colonial rule. My point is that the enduring intensity of feeling these conflicts generate demonstrates the futility of trying to base modern policy on making sense of them, on figuring out some theory of ethnic entitlement.

At this point we trip over the notion of restitution, reparation and - in some instance - sheer, ugly revenge. I have in my possession a treasured news clip from a year or so back, datelined Vatican City and headlined: "Athesists Ask $100 Million From Catholics." A group called the United World Athesists, it says, had demanded this handsome sum in "retribution" for "atrocities" committed against their kind by the church "over the past twenty centuries."

All right - that may not be the most serious claim you ever heard of, unless of course you are a member of the group. But its very absurdity does illustrate the flaw in seeing oneself as the remote-control victim or legatee of other peoples' fights and bestialities and triumpsh. Is Madalyn Murray O'Hair's quarrel really with Savonarola? In what sense are you or I or Tip O'Neill or Andy Young part of the venerable" Anglo-Saxon" conspiracy General de Gaulle saw coming to full flower in our country's foreign policy a few years back? These indentiies dug out of history are frequently take or second-hand - and vicious in effect. I understand the concept of a "homeland" in the Middle East for both Jews and Arabs, for instance. But I prefer the idea of "haven" to that of "homeland." That is because "homeland" suggests some historical property right sufficient to justicy all manner of repression and attack. When people start talking about the "homeland," history tells us we'd better look out.

It needs to admitted right here that the alternatives to this mining of the distant past for a present role are neither particularly reassuring nor wholly satisfactory. When you ask international lawyers how borders and historical ethnic claims are meant to be resolved, they will tell you that anything on the other side of the U.N. Charter is more or less regarded as fixed and that anything occurring since then is mean to be legitimate unless it is the product of force or coercion. Well, we all know how strictly these general precepts have been abided by. And we also know how much oppression and unfairness has occurred where they actually have been honored.

Even so, I would argue for the preferability of the messy modern secular and somewhat mongrelized political state to the ethnically pure and historically consistent enclave. A heritage can be appreciated, even cultivated, and, at the same time, transcended in a modern nation. But when it becomes the touchstone of all things, it breeds pain and ugliness. I can draw a line from the Treaty of Versailles to the outrages of the Palestinian terrorists now. For if we know anything, it is that racial, religious and national exclusion as policy creates violent raction in the form of virulent chauvinism on the part of the excluded - and that the thing simply works itself out in a series of chain reactions. In fact, in very nearly every one of the ethnic disputes going on around the world now, you are simply seeing the predictable and inevitable payoff for someone else's overbearing and over-refined sense of identity. We aren't historically pure - any of us. To know that is the beginning of wisdom.