The Holocaust is back in the news. President Obama has fallen into the vulgar historical error of justifying the state of Israel as reparation for the Holocaust. “[T]he aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied,” he said in Cairo. “Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust.”
But the historical relationship is exactly the reverse. The Jewish state was not made possible by the Holocaust. The Holocaust was possible only because there was no Jewish state. What is more, Hitler’s victims understood this to be the case at the time events were unfolding.
Consider, for example, Em habanim sameyaḥ (1943), a Zionist polemic addressed to the ultra-Orthodox, which has become a classic of modern Hebrew literature. It was written by Yissakhar Shlomo Teichtal, a Hasidic rabbi in the resort town of Piestany in Slovakia who fled to Budapest ahead of the National Socialists. Most of the Eastern European ḥaredi were bitterly opposed to political Zionism as a solution to the problem of Jewish existence in Europe, but Teichtal had come to believe that the “object of the Jewish tragedy” was “so that [the people] Israel will ask to return to Eretz Israel [the land of Israel].”
According to Teichtal, the Holocaust is not the reason for emigration to Palestine; to motivate emigration to Palestine is the (divine) reason for the Holocaust. The land of Israel, and the longing to return there, had to be firmly established in the Jewish imagination—had to be commonplaces of Jewish thought—for Teichtal even to advance such an argument. He was not writing out of what David Ben-Gurion would later the “hospital mentality”; he did conceive the land of Israel as a convalescent ward. It was, in the language of Shakespearean tragedy, the “promised end” of the Jewish people. The Holocaust would not be the last word.
Teichtal’s faith in a divine plan is displeasing to modern secularists, who express their displeasure by objecting to the very name of the Holocaust. “[T]o name the Nazi genocide ‘the Holocaust,’ ” the philosopher Gillian Rose warned, “is already to over-unify it and to sacralize it, to see it as providential purpose—for in the Hebrew scriptures, a holocaust refers to a burnt sacrifice which is offered in its entirety to God without any part of it being consumed.” Not in the Hebrew scriptures exactly: holokaustoma is the Greek Septuagint’s word for the Hebrew עלה [olah], the sacrifice that is burnt whole. But Holocaust is the exact word, because the Jews who experienced the Nazi genocide first hand experienced it as divine providence.
Thus Teichtal opens Em habanim sameyaḥ by appealing to the common experience, and in terms that would be likely to gain assent from ultra-Orthodox readers who would otherwise be unlikely to heed his call for emigration to Palestine:
The name of the Holocaust, with the sense it has now, was first written in English in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which was translated anonymously in the New York Times on May 15, 1948:
Nor did the name come out of nowhere. The Hebrew term translated as holocaust here is שואה [shoah], a word used twelve times in the Hebrew bible for devastation, ruin, waste. And though it was not particularly common in Jewish literature to describe a recent historical catastrophe as a shoah, the usage was also not without precedent. In fact, shoah was merely a substitute for a more common term, which was widely used by Jews during the Holocaust itself to describe what was happening to them. The more common word is חרבן [Hebrew, ḥurban; Yiddish, khurbn], a stock expression in post-biblical Jewish writing for the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple—both its burning at Babylonian hands in 586 BCE and the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. The double ḥurban became a something of a cliché in medieval Jewish literature, the central and predominant archetype for Jewish catastrophe.
Religious Jews, speaking in Yiddish, commonly referred to the Holocaust as der driter khurbn, the third destruction. The name rose so quickly to Jewish lips that it struck those who reflected upon it as painfully inadequate. In March 1943, for example, Herman Kruk wrote in his notebook in the Vilna ghetto:
 Yissakhar Shlomo Teichtal, Restoration of Zion as a Response during the Holocaust [Em habanim sameyaḥ—“A Happy Mother of Children”], ed. and trans. Pesach Schindler (Hoboken: Ktav, 1999), p. 204. Teichtal was born in 1885 in Nagyhalálsz, a town in northeastern Hungary. In 1921, he became the rabbi of Piestany, where he established a yeshiva. The Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939 and began deporting the Jews in 1942. Teichtal and his family escaped deportation first by hiding in the attic of the local synagogue—where he conceived the plan of his book—and then by fleeing to Nitra and from there to Hungary. When Germany invaded Hungary in 1944, Teichtal returned to Slovakia, falsely assuming that the National Socialists had finished their efforts to “cleanse” the area of Jews. He was captured and imprisoned in Auschwitz. He died on January 24, 1945, in a train bound for Mauthausen as the National Socialists evacuated Auschwitz.
 Gillian Rose, Mourning Becomes the Law: Philosophy and Representation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 27.
 Teichtal, pp. 62–63.
 New York Times, May 15, 1948, p. 2.
 Herman Kruk, The Last Days of the Jerusalem of Lithuania: Chronicles from the Vilna Ghetto and the Camps, 1939–1944, trans. Barbara Harshav (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), p. 475.
 Or, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a speech at Bar Ilan University a week after I wrote this post, “The right of the Jewish people to a state in the land of Israel does not derive from the cascade of catastrophes that befell our people.” The Jews’ right to a sovereign state in the land of Israel, he continued, “arises from one simple fact: this is the homeland of the Jewish people, this is where our identity was forged.”