From anti-Zionist activist to Independence Day beacon lighter

Yehuda Meshi Zahav talks with the ‘Magazine’ about his childhood and his work with ZAKA first-responder rescue units in Israel and abroad.

Yehuda Meshi Zahav (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Yehuda Meshi Zahav
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Until he was 30, Yehuda Meshi Zahav, an 11th-generation Jerusalemite and a distant cousin on his mother’s side to President Reuven Rivlin, was a staunch anti-Zionist in the forefront of violent demonstrations against Shabbat desecraters.
His mother’s family came from Lithuania at the beginning of the 19th century, and his father’s from Russia. The original surname was Zaidgold, which was translated into Hebrew. His father built the capital’s Mekor Haim neighborhood.
A born organizer with a charismatic personality and gift for public relations, Meshi Zahav, 58, is the grandson of Rabbi Yosef Sheinberger, who was one of the leaders of the virulently anti- Zionist Eda Haredit.
He is also related to Rabbi Amram Blau, who was one of the key founders of Natorei Karta, which in addition to ferociously opposing violations of Shabbat, also acted violently against excavations in the Old City, the police, the judiciary and the army.
Meshi Zahav’s relatives, both near and distant, were largely involved in community life, and many held leadership positions.
As a child, he was not aware that there was a world beyond Jerusalem’s haredi community which flowed out from Mea She’arim, through Geula to Romema and onward, as the haredi population increased.
Meshi Zahav’s favorite outing as a child was to go the original Biblical Zoo which was located near the Bar-Ilan- Shamgar intersection.
The favorite sport on Independence Day was to take down Israeli flags and burn them. “We were taught that if you do something bad, you become a Zionist.” That was the worst humiliation.
Burning the flags was regarded as something praiseworthy.
As he grew older, his horizons widened.
On July 6, 1989, he was studying at a yeshiva in Telz Stone in the Jerusalem Corridor, when he heard the sound of a crash followed by voices crying for help. An Egged bus traveling from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem had hurtled into a gorge below the highway. Meshi Zahav and several yeshiva students ran down to help extricate the injured. The crash had been caused by a Palestinian terrorist, Abed al-Hadi Ghaneim, an Islamic Jihad agent, who had hijacked the bus. Of the passengers, 16 were killed and 17 injured.
Exposed to the carnage, Meshi Zahav says he got to thinking that people of all faiths, nationalities and ideologies were created in the image of God, and that it was not up to him to sit in judgment of them.
That was the beginning of the turning point in his life, and the creation in 1995 of ZAKA, a volunteer search-andrescue operation that started as Disaster Victim Identification Unit, which is what the Hebrew acronym of ZAKA stands for, but branched out into a firstresponder rescue unit and subsequently began working on an international scale, sometimes being the first or the only Israeli rescue operation in a disaster area.
In January 2016, the 19 member- state United Nations Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations, after having several times denied ZAKA’s request for observer status, unanimously granted ZAKA official advisory status and the right to participate in UN conferences and discussions open to groups and organizations in its category.
Among the countries represented on the committee are Iran and Pakistan.
The only question the committee raised, according to Meshi Zahav, was over ZAKA’s policy to treat wounded Israelis ahead of neutralized terrorists following a terrorist attack.
Meshi Zahav’s explanation that the victim is treated before the aggressor, regardless of nationality or religion, satisfied even the Iranians.
Where ZAKA makes a very clear distinction, Meshi Zahav told The Jerusalem Post while sitting in his office adjacent to Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station, is in the body bags. Dead victims are placed in white bags, terrorists in black ones.
The UN episode was not the first time that Meshi Zahav had succeeded in getting past Iranian hostility. ZAKA was among the many search-and-rescue teams from around the world that went to Japan to help recover, remove and identify bodies caught in the rubble caused by the tsunami and earthquake in 2011. There was also an Iranian team, and the two teams worked alongside each other, and were later photographed together.
“The Iranians brought a large Iranian flag and I brought a small Israeli flag, and we each stood with our flags,” recalled Meshi Zahav as he proudly displayed the photograph that he keeps in his cellphone.
ZAKA’s informal diplomacy has earned Meshi Zahav a welcome mat at the Foreign Ministry and invitations to many of the events hosted by heads of foreign diplomatic missions.
Although he frequently travels abroad, for Meshi Zahav, Jerusalem is and always will be home. The father of seven – four sons and three daughters – is proud of the fact that his grandchildren, 13th-generation Jerusalemites, have inherited the family gene for wanting to give to the community and to be active in it.
When his seven-year-old granddaughter learned that the Zichron Menachem organization was collecting hair to make wigs for cancer patients, she told her mother that she wanted to donate her braids – which she duly did.
Meshi Zahav is immensely proud that she is carrying on the family tradition of caring for the welfare of others.
In recognition of ZAKA’s important work, as well as the friends that it is making for Israel through its contribution to search and rescue missions around the globe, Meshi Zahav was chosen to be among the beacon lighters on Mount Herzl on Independence Day in 2003.
Before accepting the invitation he consulted with rabbis in the Eda Haredit.
His grandfather was not very happy about it, but some rabbis gave him their approval. Nonetheless, the overwhelming majority of the Eda Haredit condemned him and called him a traitor.
For a time he was ostracized by the very people who used to follow him into battle against the Zionists. They were particularly angry to hear him say, as he lit the beacon: “Letiferet Medinat Yisrael” (for the glory of the State of Israel), which is the declaration traditionally made by all the beacon lighters.
They were even angrier when his second son, Ariel, joined the Israel Defense Forces. His eldest son, Shemi, had done civilian national service, but Ariel, who was initially sent to a Nahal haredi unit, didn’t like it, asked to be transferred to a combat unit and was sent to Golani.
His third son, Netanel, is a paratrooper.
A brilliant yeshiva student, he was automatically granted an exemption when he showed up at the IDF recruitment center, but he didn’t want an exemption. He wanted to be in the army. Meshi Zahav had to call some high-ranking army personnel to have Netanel’s profile changed, so that he could serve. Photographed in one of the Hebrew tabloids with Netanel after the latter’s acceptance by the IDF, Meshi Zahav was quoted as saying: “He wears his uniform and I wear mine.”
Most of the time, Meshi Zahav looks as though he stepped out of a production of Fiddler on the Roof. He wears a white buttoned-up shirt with black vest and pants, with the strings of his tzitziot (ritual fringes) hanging from beneath the vest.
His youngest son, Daniel, is keen to serve in the IDF’s Unit 8200, which is in the Intelligence Corps.
When asked about what Jerusalem means to him, Meshi Zahav’s eyes lit up. “First of all, we dreamed of it for centuries. We always prayed for Jerusalem, and Jerusalem has been part of our heritage since the sacrifice of Isaac.”
Meshi Zahav believes that despite all the disputes in the city, Jerusalem is going through the best phase in its long history. “Today, this is paradise compared to any other period, with the exception of the reign of King Solomon,” he declared.
One of his personal habits every Friday is to go up to Mount Zion and to watch Shabbat enter Jerusalem. For him this is a time to reflect on all that has happened during the week. “If I don’t do it, it’s just not the same.”
It is clear to him that Jerusalem does not belong only to Jews and haredim.
“In Temple times we knew needless hatred. We have to realize that, today, Jerusalem is a city of pluralism – of haredim, religious, secular and non-Jewish people – and we all have to respect each other regardless of our national or religious affiliations.”
With this realization, which is so far removed from his upbringing, Meshi Zahav bemoaned that the lesson of baseless hatred has not been learned.
“Look at what’s happening in politics,” he instanced. “Now it’s a thousand times worse than in Second Temple times.”
Intolerance and discrimination are not countenanced in ZAKA. “When people mourn the loss of a loved one in a terrorist attack, there’s no difference between Jews and non-Jews, religious or secular.”
Volunteers who complete a ZAKA course are asked: “Would you help a non-Jew?” If the response is negative, that person is not accepted into ZAKA.
“All people are created in the image of God,” said Meshi Zahav, adding that he has treated many wounded terrorists.
Yet for all his respect for the equality of all human beings, a wounded victim is treated first. He cited the case of a terrorist who deliberately drove into a woman and child before he was neutralized.
“Would I think for a moment to treat the terrorist before the victim? Definitely not. No one is going to teach us morality.”
ZAKA also has female and non-Jewish volunteers, and even a few volunteers from the Eda Haredit.
Meshi Zahav goes out on rescue missions together with the volunteers and sometimes puts his own life at risk.
Asked whether this bothers his wife, he grinned and said: “I think she prefers this to what life was like before, when I was arrested 34 times.”