ZAKA head forfeits position following sexual assault allegations

The Lahav 433 police unit also announced Saturday that it will open an investigation into the sexual assault allegations on Meshi-Zahav.

Yehuda Meshi Zahav, founder of ZAKA (photo credit: FLASH90)
Yehuda Meshi Zahav, founder of ZAKA
(photo credit: FLASH90)
ZAKA founder and Israel Prize laureate Yehuda Meshi-Zahav on Friday forfeited his position as head of ZAKA as well as the Israel Prize he was set to receive this year, following the launch of an official police investigation into accusations that he had sexually assaulted women and children over a period of decades, following an earlier investigation and first-hand testimony from survivors.
This follows calls by Labor Party leader Merav Michaeli to temporarily halt granting the Israel Prize, the nation’s highest civilian honor, to Meshi-Zahav due to the allegations.
The Lahav 433 police unit also announced Saturday that it will open an investigation into the sexual assault allegations on Meshi-Zahav, which is expected to begin as early as Sunday.
As part of the investigation, the police indicated that investigators are planning to fly abroad to speak to victims abused by Meshi-Zahav and convince them to testify.
“Israel Police responded quickly [to the allegations], which is good. This is how they should react to every suspicion of sexual assault,” Michaeli stated. She later added that “we believe the victims who came forth with a lot of bravery to testify against Meshi-Zahav. He did the right thing when he forfeited the [Israel] Prize.”
As part of the investigation, the police indicated that investigators are planning to fly abroad to speak to victims abused by Meshi-Zahav and convince them to testify.
Several people of different ages, including men, women and teenage boys and girls, came forward to recall their abusive experiences with Meshi-Zahav over the years. According to a report first published by Haaretz on Thursday, he was investigated by police in 2011 on sexual assault accusations, but the probe was closed due to a lack of evidence.
One woman recalled that Meshi-Zahav offered her financial assistance to ameliorate her economic situation, later forcing himself on her and threatening her life by saying one of his ZAKA vans will run her over if she revealed the assault.
Police allegedly approached the woman on the matter in 2013, but she refused to file a complaint against the ZAKA head.
The Haaretz investigation also revealed that many people from Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox communities were aware of Meshi-Zahav’s activities, but never reported them to the police.
Further testimonies revealed that he allegedly boasted about his past sexual experiences over numerous decades, apparently using his influential position to assault teenagers and younger children over the course of many years.
ANOTHER TESTIMONY provided by a younger man, who was allegedly sexually assaulted at age 16, described how Meshi-Zahav would treat him like a prostitute.
“There was a storeroom at a school in the Ramat Eshkol neighborhood. I got a key from Yehuda and watched television there. Yehuda would arrive and do with me as he pleased,” the young man said.
“From time to time, he took me to apartments in Tel Aviv, where we would meet with prostitutes. I was with one while he was with another,” he added.
Describing the pain he experienced in a Facebook message to Meshi-Zahav, the young man said: “Even today, over 20 years later, I’m licking my wounds. You left me hurt and bleeding, and you’re continuing with your life as if nothing happened. Only now, when I’m the father of children who are of the age at which you abused me, do I understand the significance.”
The message was read and apparently ignored by Meshi-Zahav.
Another testimony by a 26-year-old man recalled how he would sexually assault him in a synagogue when he was 5 years old.
Later on Friday, a woman who heard the reports on Meshi-Zahav decided to step up and share her story. In an interview with N12, she talked about the sexual messages that Meshi-Zahav would regularly send her, knowing that she was a married woman.
Her first encounter with Meshi-Zahav took place in Bnei Brak. “I was walking down the street with a good friend of mine... he stopped us and said, ‘hey, I know you’ and ‘don’t worry, I know everything about everyone.’”
After obtaining her phone number, Meshi-Zahav started texting her regularly. “I told him: ‘you know I’m a married woman, right?’ and he said: ‘yes, but it shouldn’t be an issue.’ He added: ‘If you need anything, I really like helping people,’” the unnamed witness told N12.
The messages quickly took a perverted turn, according to the witness. “He wrote: ‘how hot are you? Can you do that with three people? You’re sexy and beautiful.’ I got scared, his texts started being insanely sexual,” she said.
ZAKA COMMENTED on Friday that it “pained” them to hear the reports about Meshi-Zahav, and “we wish for him that his innocence be proven.”
“Still,” the organization added, “it is important for us to keep the names and reputations of the thousands of ZAKA volunteers away from this incident, and to clarify that they have nothing to do with it.”
A ZAKA spokesperson later added that “the organization’s management, members and volunteers were shocked when receiving the news and hearing the testimonies,” and that the organization had complete trust in the authorities investigating the incident.
“ZAKA’s mission is bigger than any consideration or position, and the organization will continue to carry out its work with dedication,” the spokesperson added.
ZAKA is the Hebrew acronym for Zihuy Korbanot Ason, literally: “Disaster Victim Identification.” Its full name is “ZAKA – Identification, Extraction and Rescue – True Kindness,” and it is staffed by volunteer community emergency responders.
According to its website, Meshi-Zahav founded it as a search and rescue organization in the early 1990’s. “Today, ZAKA is a UN-recognized humanitarian volunteer organization that provides a rapid response to mass casualty disasters across the world. To date, ZAKA has saved thousands of lives – and honored those who couldn’t be saved with dignity in death.”
Meshi-Zahav lost his mother, father and brother to COVID-19, and is himself a survivor of the virus.
He responded to the allegations made in the Haaretz investigation by claiming he is being targeted.
“Ever since it became known that I had won the Israel Prize, I have been the focus of various telephone threats,” he said. “After my parents passed away, some called me to express joy at their deaths. Others spat at me as I walked down the street. Unfortunately, this is part of the price I pay for the path I chose. Publishing the article is an attempt to ‘settle the score’ with me.
“For as long as my strength permits me, I will continue to serve the people of Israel and the State of Israel as I have done all my life,” he said.
In a letter addressed to ZAKA volunteers and released later on Friday, Meshi-Zahav rejected the allegations put forth against him and reiterated his claims, noting that “these stories are unfounded, gossip and the settling of scores against me.”
He noted his concern over the “damage that may be caused as a result to this important organization, its activities and 4,000 dedicated volunteers,” and said that he was relinquishing “the honor that has been bestowed upon me by the decision to award me the Israel Prize in a sign of recognition for the activities of the
organization and for the activities of every single volunteer.”
Natan Rothstein contributed to this report.