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Before suicide attempt, ZAKA founder said to have faced arrest ‘within days’

Reports say authorities have a number of cases against Yehuda Meshi-Zahav within the statute of limitations; TV program reveals harrowing new sexual assault allegations

Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, former chairman of Israel's ZAKA rescue unit poses for a picture outside his mother home following her death, in the Ultra orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim, Jerusalem, January 19, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, former chairman of Israel's ZAKA rescue unit poses for a picture outside his mother home following her death, in the Ultra orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim, Jerusalem, January 19, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

An investigation into the numerous allegations of rape and sexual assault against the founder of the ZAKA emergency service was reportedly in an advanced stage ahead of his apparent suicide attempt on Thursday.

Police planned to arrest Yehuda Meshi-Zahav at the beginning of next week, as a number of the cases being investigated are within the statute of limitations, Israeli television reports said.

According to the reports, there are dozens of additional complaints against Meshi-Zahav that are not within the statute of limitations but can be used as proof of his serial behavior.

On Thursday morning, Meshi-Zahav was found unconscious in his apartment. A source familiar with the matter said he tried to hang himself.

Israeli paramedics are seen outside the home of the former chairman of the ZAKA rescue unit, Yehuda Meshi Zahav, in Givaat Zeev, Jerusalem, where he attempted suicide on April 22, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

His condition was deemed critical by doctors at the hospital, who added that it had stabilized slightly upon arrival.

The attempted suicide took place hours before Channel 12’s investigative program, Uvda, was scheduled to air a report revealing additional allegations against Meshi-Zahav.

The investigative program said police in 2013 had known of at least twenty cases of sexual assault by Meshi-Zahav against minors over the years, but never made the decision to press the issue and formally investigate him.

“I’m used to blood, I’m not afraid of it,” Meshi-Zahav allegedly said to a victim, who told Channel 12 she hoped he wouldn’t rape her since she was menstruating at the time.

In a suicide note reportedly found in his home, Channel 12 said Meshi-Zahav wrote: “A pile of lies. They said I was a pedophile and a necrophiliac, missing only a cannibal,” apparently referring to the new allegations against him.

“Look at this body as if it wasn’t a body,” Meshi-Zahav allegedly said as he touched a woman’s corpse in a morgue, during a visit as part of his role in ZAKA, one of his accusers, who was also volunteering for the organization, told Channel 12.

The note, said to be two pages long, also denies all the allegations against him, labeling the original report and those following it as “libel.”

Illustrative: A ZAKA team responds to an accident in Petah Tikva, October 26, 2015. (Ilan Malca/ZAKA)

On March 11, the Haaretz daily published a report in which Meshi-Zahav was accused by six people of sexual assault, rape, and abuse. The expose said there were likely many more cases.

The allegations against Yehuda Meshi-Zahav were made by both men and women, some of whom were minors at the time of the alleged events.

Meshi-Zahav took advantage of his status, power, money, and even the organization he heads to commit sexual assault, according to the report.

Of the first six allegations reported, the earliest is from 1983, and the latest from 2011. The report added that many residents of several ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in Jerusalem knew of Meshi-Zahav’s actions but did not say anything or report him to authorities.

Days before the initial Haaretz report, Meshi-Zahav was declared a winner of the Israel Prize’s lifetime achievement award for his contributions to Israeli society. Education Minister Yoav Gallant announced that the prestigious prize would go to Meshi-Zahav for his decades of work in ZAKA. In 2003, he lit a torch at Israel’s national Independence Day celebrations.

The day after the report, Meshi-Zahav announced that he was stepping down from his role in ZAKA and giving up the Israel Prize.

He was a vocal critic of some of the ultra-Orthodox leadership during the pandemic, as some prominent community figures downplayed the virus, including in an October interview with The Times of Israel.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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