Anyone who wanted a better undrstanding of Israel's strike against the Iraqi nuclear reactor should have attended the world gathering of Holocaust survivors in Jerusalem, just one week after the raid.
The one-time assembly of 6,000 Jewish survivors of Nazi death camps and ghettos, from 28 countries with the bulk now living in the United States and Canada, offered a living reminder of the psychological factors shaping Israel's relationship to the rest of the world.
As an abstract historical fact, the Holocaust is almost impossible to comprehend, even when American network television presents the prettified yet still terrifying odysey of one European Jewish family's destruction. But to watch hundreds of ordinary middle-class, middle-aged Americans talking and embracing, dressed in polyester and prints, doctors and insurance agents and businessmen, from Los Angeles and Cleveland and New York and Boston and suddenly to notice that all have blue death-camp numbers tattooed on their arms, is to glimpse the all- embracing evil of Hitler's anti-Semitism.
What some feared would be a morbid experience turned into a vibrant celebration of personal survival, the survival of the Jewish people and the renaissance of a Jewish state. But over and over suvivors' speeches touched on the indifference of a world that failed to stop Nazi genocide and denied Jews refuge from Hitler. "They live with the memory that the world permitted them to be killed," said Abraham Foxman of the Anti- Defamation League in New York, himself a survivor.
The conference aimed at bearing witness at a time of resurgent world anti-Semitism when American and European neo-Nazis are claiming the Holocaust never happened. Many foreign observers here, while not denying the Holocaust, get impatient at Prime Minister Menachem Begin's constant evocation of the subject to justify various Israeli actions. Some think it is a tasteless ploy to gain sympathy, or an election gambit. Even young Israelis -- taught that Jews fight back -- are often annoyed by reminders of millions of Jews who were slaughtered.
But the survivors' gathering underlined the extent to which the death of the 6 million remains a key background motif to Israeli strategic concerns. Samuel Pisar, a French international lawyer who was liberated from Auschwitz at age 16, told a memorial gathering for 1,500,000 Jewish children killed by the Nazis: "Today, when Israel sees any nuclear power plant in its region as a new gas chamber, . . . it displays an understandable psychosis about security."
For Polish-born Menachem Begin, who lost both parents in the Holocaust, this catastrophe is a measuring rod against which later events are judged. This is perhaps more true of him than of native-born Israeli leaders. A religious man, Mr. Begin sees the state of Israel -- self-reliant and invincible -- as the only metaphysical, and real, answer to the Holocaust.
Standing like a biblical patriarch before 6,000 survivors and their children in front of Jerusalem's western "wailing" wall, the only remnant of the Jewish second temple destroyed by the Romans in AD 70, he told them in impassioned tones, "Israel will never allow an enemy to develop weapons of mass destruction to be used against the Jewish people -- never again." After the speech he walked to the wall and wept. Several days later he totally rejected the United Nations Security Council's unanimous condemnation of the Israeli raid on the Iraqi reactor.
But this Holocaust-dominated approach, pitting Israel alone against the world , carries many dangers. It contains the seeds of overkill. As lawyer Pisar noted, Israel's "psychosis" about security can turn to "suicidal paranoia if any danger or threat . . . becomes the automatic occasion for a military strike." Its stridency threatens to further isolate Israel. And it ignores the limits to Israel's independence. Israel depends for military supplies and financing on the US, whose interests are similar but not always identical to its own.
Nor can force alone -- minus careful diplomacy -- guarantee Israel's security in the Middle East. This approach will not solve the still-pressing question of Palestinian self-determination; it could jeopardize Israel's peace treaty with Egypt;and it holds out no hope at all of ultimately broadening the treaty to include other Arab co untries.