Court papers shine light on suspicions that embattled ZAKA founder duped donors

Judge-appointed trustees said company owned by Yehuda Meshi-Zahav posed as rescue charity to raise money, but only transferred some of it; reports allege rest went to slush fund

Yehuda Meshi Zahav poses for a picture in Jerusalem on January 19, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Yehuda Meshi Zahav poses for a picture in Jerusalem on January 19, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The co-founder of the ZAKA emergency services organization, who is currently being investigated by police over accusations of sexual abuse, has a history of alleged financial malfeasance, court filings have revealed.

According to public documents, Yehuda Meshi Zahav set up a private for-profit company, also called ZAKA, which for years raised millions of dollars in the charity’s name. Reports have alleged that he and his family kept some of the money, using it as a slush fund.

Police closed an investigation into the alleged slush fund in 2013, due to “lack of public interest,” Channel 13 news reported Wednesday.

According to court filings, Meshi-Zahav created the company True Kindness: The ZAKA International Organization in June 2005, but soon transferred its management to his younger brother, Remi Meshi-Zahav, while retaining an ownership stake.

The company would raise funds through telemarketing, using the charity’s name — “ZAKA — Location, Rescue and Lifesaving,” and would even issue the charity’s receipts, court-appointed administrators for the search and rescue charity alleged.

Remi Meshi-Zahav told a court several years ago that it had been agreed with the charity that 40% of the funds raised by the company would be retained, in addition to the company’s overhead, meaning that the company would keep at least half of the money it raised.

Zaka volunteers. (Courtesy ZAKA)

In a November 2011 court filing, Yehuda Meshi-Zahav confirmed that the charity had such a “working agreement,” never formalized, with the private company he owned.

In a July 2012 affidavit, Remi Meshi-Zahav told the court that his company was under no obligation to transfer funds to the ZAKA — Location, Rescue and Lifesaving charity, but could transfer the money to any ZAKA-related entity it chose.

“Until recently, the company had a contract with the ZAKA charity,” he said, “from July 1, 2012, the company is no longer obligated to the charity. The company operates on the basis of its bylaws with other ZAKA organizations in Israel and worldwide.”

Responding to the allegations Thursday, ZAKA noted in a statement that the reports of financial impropriety refer “to events that occurred many years ago. At that time, the ZAKA Search and Rescue organization sued the private company mentioned, and won.”

Over the last eight years, under its current management, ZAKA said, it “has received praise and approval for proper financial management time after time.”

Yehuda Meshi-Zahav has denied any wrongdoing.

ZAKA confusion

There are no fewer than 11 Israeli entities with some variation of the name ZAKA in Israel’s corporate and charity registries. These include Men in Yellow ZAKA, Friends of the ZAKA Charity, ZAKA, the International Unit, ZAKA of the Hadera Region and ZAKA–Aid for Victims of Catastrophe, among others.

In the US as well, there are several non-profit organizations in the New York area calling themselves ZAKA, according to IRS filings.

This has created a state of confusion where an organization calling itself ZAKA can raise funds for itself, with donors mistakenly believing that they are donating to the best-known of these entities, the ZAKA — Location, Rescue and Lifesaving charity.

Illustrative : A Barkan industrial zone factory where a Palestinian worker killed two Israelis and injured a third, on October 7, 2018. A ZAKA motorcycle stands in the foreground. (Zaka)

In the early 2000s, a court began appointing trustees, or special administrators, to oversee the financial health of the charity, after it fell into massive debt to workers, suppliers, companies and the tax authorities.

One of the charity’s court-appointed trustees, attorney Eitan Erez, said in a May 2012 report to a court that fundraising for ZAKA was tantamount to a “free for all.”

“The charity had several contacts as well as non-profits and bank accounts abroad. Those contacts, chief among them Moshe Meshi Zahav [another brother of Yehuda Meshi-Zahav] operate in the United States, Panama, Mexico, France, Hong Kong and other countries. The credibility of the reports of some of the contacts concerning the donated funds is problematic, to put it mildly,” he said.

In addition, Erez wrote, another “problematic issue that we raised with the charity registry is the multiplicity of entities calling themselves ZAKA, which can use the name to collect donations from innocent citizens who mistakenly believe the money they are donating goes to a single charity.”

Referring to the company run by Remi Meshi Zahav, Erez wrote that “the situation today is that the company raises the funds and does with them what it wants.”

Amir Kadari, another one of the charity’s court-appointed special administrators, said he had also pointed out this problem to the court, but that the court had decided that ZAKA was not a trademark but a general descriptor and that any entity could use the term “ZAKA” in its name if it wished to do so. (Full disclosure: Kadari provides legal services to The Times of Israel.)

ZAKA is a Hebrew acronym for the words “identification of disaster victims,” which describes the charity’s original raison d’etre, collecting body parts following accidents or attacks. Over the years it has also transitioned to provide search, rescue and emergency medical services and has become a major part of Israel’s emergency response services at home and abroad.

A Zaka volunteer collects human remains after a deadly rocket attack in Kiryat Malachi, on November 15, 2012. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

In February 2013, according to filings from the Jerusalem District Court, Judge David Mintz ordered the company to transfer NIS 2,011,552 to the charity, along with ownership of the company’s vehicles. He instructed the company to cease fundraising for the charity and to immediately stop using the charity’s reputation as a tool in its operations.

In August 2015, after nothing had been done, the court ordered that the company be liquidated.

Yehuda Meshi-Zahav offloaded his shares in the company in 2014 but official documents show the company is still operating. However, it has not filed annual accounting statements in recent years and may be dormant.

Vacations and five-star hotels

In March 2012, an expose in the Maariv newspaper by journalist Kalman Liebeskind charged that the Meshi-Zahav family used the company’s funds for purposes such as vacations at five-star hotels, purchases at the local grocery store and airline tickets, especially for a third Meshi-Zahav brother, Moshe, who would go on fundraising trips, the fruits of which rarely reached the charity’s coffers, despite the charity’s financial woes.

Yehuda Meshi Zahav testing a new rescue and escape device on July 29, 2008. (Yossi Zamir / Flash 90)

Liebeskind quoted from court documents to write that over a period of 4.5 years, between early 2007 and halfway through 2011, the company collected at least NIS 8.5 million, issuing receipts in the name of the charity but that with the exception of small sums, none of it was transferred to the charity.

He told the story of a Brazilian Jew, Max Plaskin, who had donated $60,000 for a Zaka ambulance that was never bought — the money was later discovered in the company’s account — and of a Zaka motorcycle that was presented to multiple donors, with different donor plaques affixed.

Moshe died in December at the age of 59 from complications related to COVID-19, within weeks of the brothers’ parents, who also died from the disease.

An open secret?

Yehuda Meshi-Zahav has been under renewed scrutiny since last week, when a Haaretz report detailed accusations from six people of sexual assault, rape, and abuse.

Police have opened a formal investigation and more alleged victims have come forward. The sexual abuse allegations against Meshi-Zahav have been made by both men and women, some of whom were minors at the time of the alleged events.

Of the six allegations reported in the Haaretz story, the earliest is from 1983, and the latest from 2011. The story said 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.

ZAKA Chairman Yehuda Meshi-Zahav (2L) gives an Israeli search-and-rescue team a final briefing before they depart for Ethiopia, March 10, 2018. (Courtesy)

In 2014, Remi Meshi-Zahav was jailed for 7 years for sexually abusing his daughter when she was a pre-teen and teenager.

A decade earlier, Moshe Meshi-Zahav was arrested for allegedly molesting teenage girls, some of them in ZAKA vehicles. He does not appear to have ever been indicted.

Earlier this month, Yehuda Meshi-Zahav was declared a winner of the Israel Prize’s lifetime achievement award for his contributions to Israeli society and decades of work in ZAKA. In 2003, he lit a torch at Israel’s national Independence Day celebrations.

On Friday, Meshi-Zahav announced that he was stepping down from his role in ZAKA and also giving up the Israel Prize.

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