Iconic ZAKA Founder Accused of Sexual Assault, Calling Into Question Organization’s Future
ZAKA head Yehuda Meshi-Zahav searches for the remains of victims, including two Israelis, after Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed near Bishoftu, Ethiopia, killing 157 passengers and crew, March 15, 2019. (Tony Karumba/AFP via Getty Images)

Iconic ZAKA Founder Accused of Sexual Assault, Calling Into Question Organization’s Future

Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, who co-founded the emergency response organization, is under investigation for a long list of alleged sexual assaults

At the beginning of the month, Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, the co-founder of the world-renowned emergency response organization ZAKA, was named as this year’s recipient of the prestigious Israel Prize. But then accusations against him began to surface.

A Haaretz exposé last Thursday quoted women and men who accused Meshi-Zahav of sexually assaulting them. More accusers have come forward since, and the Israel Police said Sunday that it had opened an investigation into the allegations against him. Israeli media is now reeling with report after report, detailing accusations, raising questions about past investigations that were opened by the police, only to be closed, and wondering how these assaults could have continued over a period of decades. Many in the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community say that Meshi-Zahav’s alleged assaults were well-known.

Meshi-Zahav rose to prominence in Israeli public awareness in the 1990s and early 2000s due to his work with ZAKA, which he co-founded. ZAKA, a Hebrew acronym that stands for “Disaster Victims Identification,” responded to Palestinian suicide bombings that rocked the streets of Israel. The organization’s volunteers, most of them ultra-Orthodox men, would arrive at the scene to care for the victims’ bodies, and when necessary, to gather whatever remains could be found and identified after the explosion to ensure proper burial.

Since then, ZAKA has continued its assistance to Israel’s emergency response units; its volunteers respond to everything from terrorist attacks to car accidents. The organization currently comprises around 5,000 volunteers, who are on call 24/7, and has also expanded to include paramedics and search and rescue teams, which it deploys not only in Israel, but sends worldwide when disaster strikes.

“The organization’s philosophy is built around the belief that man is made in the divine image, and therefore ZAKA volunteers literally go to the ends of the world to assist all mankind, regardless of religion, race, creed or gender,” a statement sent to The Media Line by a ZAKA spokesperson explained.

Yet, with its co-founder and chairman – the face of the organization for so many years – facing such allegations, will donation-reliant ZAKA survive?

Jonathan Feldstein, the president of Run For Zion and the Genesis 123 Foundation, has been working in nonprofit public relations for the last three decades. “The challenge that ZAKA will have is to the extent that ZAKA is synonymous with Yehuda Meshi-Zahav,” Feldstein told The Media Line. “If there’s no way to separate the organization from him, then it will die and that will be the end of it.”

“It’s imperative upon the organization – if it wants to stay alive – to rebrand itself, as not Yehuda Meshi-Zahav’s organization but an organization that’s doing essential work, to the extent that their work is essential,” Feldstein continued.

The organization is already moving to signal to the public and its supporters the separation between the man and ZAKA, despite public perception in Israel. David Rose, ZAKA’s international director, wrote in a letter to supporters and volunteers, “Our sacred mission extends beyond any one individual,” further adding, “I assure you that ZAKA will continue to work tirelessly for the benefit of the State of Israel, the Jewish people and anyone in need. While we are saddened by the allegations, we stand firm in our commitment to carry on the lifesaving work of ZAKA.”

ZAKA’s statement to The Media Line said that “ZAKA is a nonprofit organization, and as such, always works to raise money. The organization and its mission are far greater than the sum of its parts and do not depend on this or that person. The sacred activity of ZAKA will continue in full force.”

The spokesperson added that “even during these difficult days, the organization’s representatives continue to receive inquiries and support from people all over the world who know and understand the dedication of the organization, its volunteers and employees to their national and international mission.”

Since the testimonies have surfaced, Meshi-Zahav has stepped down from his position at the organization. “In the coming days, the organization will appoint a special director who will lead the organization alongside the CEO and the board of directors,” the spokesperson’s statement said. Feldstein estimates that this decision by Meshi-Zahav may assist the organization’s survival, but much hinges on ZAKA’s ability to fill his function in its ranks.

The accusations may also impact the organization’s ability to recruit volunteers. Ultra-Orthodox volunteers make up the majority of its manpower. However, a long-time ultra-Orthodox educational professional, who currently focuses on facilitating interaction and dialogue between the Haredi sector and the rest of Israeli society, estimates that volunteer numbers will not be impacted. Speaking of the Haredi sector, the man – who preferred to remain unnamed because of the sensitivity of the issue – told The Media Line, “I think that there is a very clear differentiation between the person who stood at the head of the organization and the few thousands of volunteers who do God’s work. I don’t think anyone has thought for a moment that there’s an issue with the organization, itself.”

The Haredi educator also explained that two more differences would likely lessen the impact of these stories on ultra-Orthodox potential volunteers. Firstly, he estimates that almost all members of Israel’s Haredi community know a ZAKA volunteer personally. This gives the organization a human face and disconnects it from any scandalous headlines. Secondly, he says Meshi-Zahav is much less prominent in the ultra-Orthodox world. “He is a media wizard,” he said, “but he focuses his efforts on the general public, the mainstream media. … He has appeared in Haredi media from time to time, but significantly less [than in mainstream media] and so the automatic association that Yehuda Meshi-Zahav and ZAKA are one – the Haredi public will be able to differentiate much more easily.”

The educator also touched on the reasons why these allegations, which have supposedly circled in the Haredi world for years, remained quiet. “The horror that is felt notwithstanding, I think he still has a right to be considered innocent until proven guilty, the right to prove his innocence in court, so we have to be very careful,” he stressed. Continuing, he explained that “in the ultra-Orthodox community, there is very little talk about any subject related to sexual relations, including the matters tied to sexual assault and harassment.” This stems firstly, he said, from considerations of modesty. “Only in recent years have people realized that children must be made to understand that they need to be careful and on guard, and so great efforts are being made to pass on messages of self-protection without touching on this burning hot potato too much.”

Speaking specifically about the accusations against Meshi-Zahav, he says he can only guess at the reasons. “It’s true that there were rumors about the man,” he says. He believes, however, that a police investigation that was closed a few years ago for lack of evidence put the minds of many people at ease.

Eli, who runs a hardware store near ZAKA’s international headquarters in Jerusalem, seems to have been painfully surprised by the allegations. “I am very torn,” he told The Media Line. “On the one hand, I admired him” for his activities and his caring. “On the other hand, this suddenly fell on him, and it’s very disappointing. … When you’ve known a person for decades, and you know that he’s a role model and source of inspiration in many ways, it is gravely disappointing when you hear things such as these,” he says. “Deep inside, you hope it isn’t true and that it’s all just stories, but you know, it’s enough that 1% [of his conduct] isn’t OK and … that’s enough.”

Eli thinks this will certainly impact the organization and its activities. “Of course it will have consequences. He is very charismatic and I am guessing that this organization relies on donations. I don’t think someone else will be able to fill his shoes in matters such as fundraising. … I think that if there won’t be someone of his caliber, the organization will decline, and it is extremely important. … While I may not be observant at all, I saw, I’m a Jerusalemite, I know what they do,” he said, referring to the organization’s activities during the Second Intifada, in response to terror attacks in the city, which left deep scars in many of the city’s residents.

Another store owner in Jerusalem’s city center also expressed his disappointment at the recent accusations. “I saw him as a truly righteous man, and indeed, no one could imagine this [coming about], and when he wrote his first response, that it will all end with nothing because of lack of evidence, I believed him,” said the store owner, who asked not to be named. Now, however, with the number of testimonies rising, “you understand that there is something to it, there’s a problem here.”

“It does not reflect in any way on ZAKA, though,” he said. “Of course not.”

In the meantime, ZAKA’s spokesperson concluded, “these are not easy days for the organization. We are stunned and by the harsh allegations and shocked by the harsh testimonies attributed to Yehuda Meshi-Zahav. The acts described are light years away from the values that characterize the organization. There is no appropriate condemnation that can give expression to these difficult feelings. The police have opened an investigation against Meshi-Zahav who, as stated, no longer holds any position in the organization. ZAKA welcomes the examination of the testimonies and expects justice to be done.”

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