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Police to review sex abuse charges against ZAKA founder, with many cases too old

Authorities said looking into previously closed case from 10 years ago, as other reported incidents are unacceptable under statute of limitations

Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, head of the ZAKA rescue unit takes part in celebrations of the Jewish holiday of Lag Baomer on Mt. Meron in northern Israel on May 3, 2018. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, head of the ZAKA rescue unit takes part in celebrations of the Jewish holiday of Lag Baomer on Mt. Meron in northern Israel on May 3, 2018. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Police are to begin examing accusations of sexual assault and abuse by the co-founder and chairman of the ZAKA volunteer emergency response group on Sunday but will have to find viable a case within the statute of limitations, according to a television report Saturday.

In order to build a case against Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, police will focus on searching for complainants from the past decade, as cases beyond that time period are considered “cold cases,” Channel 12 reported.

Meshi-Zahav was accused Thursday of sexual assault, rape, and abuse by six people in a report by the Haaretz daily, which said there are likely many more cases.

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

Police believe they can build a case with one of the alleged victims, who says she was raped around 10 years ago in a Jerusalem bed and breakfast.

The woman, then in her 20s, refused to file a complaint at the time and the investigation was closed, with its existence not being made public. She now lives abroad and police are looking to speak with her, Channel 12 reported.

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

The remaining cases reported by Haaretz date back 20-40 years, and are unacceptable under the statute of limitations.

Magen for Jewish Communities, a non-profit that works to support survivors of sexual abuse, has said it is aware of six cases, one of them of alleged rape, but are all from too long ago to be used.

Meshi-Zahav is a prominent figure in the ultra-Orthodox community, with ZAKA a major part of Israel’s emergency response services at home and abroad.

The original Haaretz report said Meshi-Zahav took advantage of his status, power, money, and even the organization he heads to commit sexual assault on multiple occasions.

One alleged victim said he forcibly undressed her and raped her after offering financial aid. The woman said that when Meshi-Zahav forced himself on her, he threatened, “If you talk, a ZAKA jeep will run you over.”

Another said Meshi-Zahav repeatedly abused him when he was a teen, only realizing years later he was his “escort, a prostitute in the full sense of the word,” he told Haaretz.

The report said several other women have testified that he masturbated in front of them and touched them sexually.

Meshi-Zahav denied the allegations, telling the paper the claims “are baseless” and will cause “irrevocable damage” to his good name.

Of the 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.

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 prize would go to Meshi-Zahav for his decades of work in ZAKA.

Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, co-founder of ZAKA, speaks at a conference in Jerusalem, March 7, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

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

Meshi-Zahav also made headlines in January when his parents both died of COVID-19 within days of each other and less than a month after his younger brother died of a different cause.

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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