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First official sexual assault complaint filed against ZAKA founder

Accusation of attempted rape by Yehuda Meshi-Zahav is apparently beyond statute of limitations, but could be used to bolster other allegations

Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, chairman of Israel's ZAKA rescue unit, speaks at a conference of the Israeli Television News Company in Jerusalem on March 7, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, chairman of Israel's ZAKA rescue unit, speaks at a conference of the Israeli Television News Company in Jerusalem on March 7, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A man filed a sexual assault complaint Wednesday against ZAKA cofounder and chairman Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, who has been accused of rape and other sex crimes by at least half a dozen people.

Police opened an investigation against Meshi-Zahav last week following the bombshell report from the Haaretz daily detailing allegations against him, but initially struggled to find anyone who would file a complaint.

The alleged victim, reportedly a man in his 40s, arrived at the Lahav 433 serious crime unit on Wednesday and told investigators that Meshi-Zahav had molested him when he was 14 and tried to rape him. According to Hebrew media reports, the man said the assaults continued for a period of time.

The man had told his story to the Magen nonprofit that works to support survivors of sexual abuse,  the Ynet news site reported. Police had approached Magen about the allegations against Meshi-Zahav and the organization then persuaded the man to file a complaint, the report said.

Though the man’s complaint apparently cannot be prosecuted due to the statute of limitations, it could serve to bolster any future complaints that go to trial.

Illustrative: A ZAKA van and volunteers at the scene of an accident in Beit Shemesh, January 18, 2018. (Yaakov Lederman/Flash90)

Also Wednesday, Channel 13 news reported that police received new information on an alleged victim of Meshi-Zahav — a woman who claims he raped her four years ago.

The woman alleged that Meshi-Zahav sexually assaulted her in a Jerusalem hotel, according to the report.

No official complaint has so far been filed.

Meshi-Zahav, who had initially denied the allegations against him, will defend himself by claiming that all sexual relations were consensual, Channel 12 News reported Tuesday. The station, citing unnamed associates of Meshi-Zahav, said he will at most say relations were in exchange for money, gifts or other benefits.

With this defense he hopes to evade conviction for more serious alleged offenses, including rape, the report said. It was not clear how the defense would apply to alleged offenses against minors.

Meshi-Zahav showed up uninvited to the Lahav 433 unit on Monday though officers at the unit refused to take testimony from him, as he had yet to be summoned for questioning. Channel 13 cited senior law enforcement officials who called Meshi-Zahav’s appearance at the police station a “publicity stunt.”

Meshi-Zahav was accused last week of sexual assault, rape, and abuse by six people in the Haaretz report, which said there are likely many more cases. More alleged victims have come forward since the newspaper investigation was released, as well as reports that Meshi-Zahav’s alleged crimes were widely known in some parts of the ultra-Orthodox community.

The 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 story, the earliest is from 1983, and the latest from 2011. The Haaretz 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.

Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, chairman of the ZAKA emergency response organization, on February 4, 2010. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

Police began examining the accusations of sexual assault and abuse against Meshi-Zahav on Sunday, and will have to find a viable case within the statute of limitations, with the focus on any incidents in the past decade.

Hebrew media has reported that police managed to make contact with one of Meshi-Zahav’s alleged victims who is believed to be within the statute of limitations. The woman is believed to have confided to reporters under the condition of anonymity that the ZAKA founder raped her several years ago, but she turned down the police request to file a complaint.

Some victims are likely afraid to come forward given Meshi-Zahav’s eminent stature and long-held ties with law enforcement. ZAKA is a major part of Israel’s emergency response services at home and abroad.

Earlier this month, 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.

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

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