The three young men recently arrested on suspicion of having painted graffiti on the walls of Jerusalem's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial belong to extremist ultra-Orthodox sects. The scrawled messages, accusing the Zionist movement of having intentionally contributed to causing the Holocaust, are congruous with accusations that Haredi fringe groups have made since the 1980s, when these communities gained strength.

As the stringency of their religious observance has grown, so too has their hatred for both the state and Zionism. Members of the extremist Satmar and Neturei Karta sects, as well as figures associated with United Torah Judaism and Young Agudat Israel, have raised this terrible accusation, punctuated with epithets such as "Holocaust criminals," "Amalek's accomplices" and "Their hands are full of blood."

There is a theological aspect to the accusation. Zionism is secular, and secularism is heresy. In turning its back on the Jewish people and its values, the argument goes, the Zionists sought to be like any other nation and to establish a state. But Israel is "not like the nations of the world," since it is the Chosen People.

The rejection of this fundamental principle led to the violation of the three vows that the Jewish people and the nations of the world made to God at Mount Sinai, by contemporary interpretation. Zionism, by violating the Jewish People's vows against trying to expedite the end of time by force and reversing their exile, rather than waiting for divine redemption and the Messiah, released the nations of the world from their vow - not to treat the Jews too harshly - and paved the way for the Holocaust.

The extremist sects, adding a historical-political argument to the theological one, claim that Zionism did not want Haredim in Israel. The bitter truth, however, is that the Nazis slaughtered every Jew they could find, without inquiring about their level of observance, and had they managed to conquer Palestine in the summer of 1942, the prestate Jewish Yishuv would have met the same fate. How do these Haredi extremists explain the fact that the half million Jews living here, most of them heretics, were saved from the Nazis?

The Holocaust poses a number of difficult questions for Haredim, such as where were God and the rabbis during this period and how did the faithful measure up against the personal and moral test that it represented. To say that Zionism is to blame is to demonstrate shallowness and spiritual destitution. It is an insult to historical truth, the Jewish people and its state, and to the Creator of the world and His believers.

The implication of the accusation is that Zionism is omnipotent, a kind of Satan whose power is equal to that of God. The vast majority of Haredim gave very different explanations for these questions.

The benefits that can be derived from blaming Zionism for the Holocaust, however, go far beyond the extremist sects making the accusation because it serves the political cause of opposing the secular state. After all, if Zionism acted with malice against the Jewish people in the past, goes the argument, it is not worthy of leading it. Therefore the fight to make halakha (Jewish law) the law of the land is justified on all counts, especially in light of the Holocaust.

The accusation also serves an internal, and possibly more important, need: to strengthen the Haredi self-image in face of modernity and the state, together with all their temptations. This is accomplished through the belief that God did not truly abandon his people during the Holocaust but merely hid his face, that the rabbis rebuilt the Haredi world in accordance with His commandments and that believing Jews came out of the experience of the Holocaust stronger and more pure than before, as opposed to secular Jews. And if this is the case, then the Holocaust was not a meaningless event and there is a reason to cleave even more fervently to the path.

The writer is the chief historian of Yad Vashem.