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Zaka emergency group co-founder awarded Israel Prize for contribution to society

Yehuda Meshi-Zahav ‘a role model for the spirit of volunteering,’ says selection committee; former Foreign Ministry director-general Joseph Ciechanover also wins

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

A co-founder and chairman of the Zaka volunteer emergency response group was declared Tuesday a winner of the Israel Prize’s life achievement award for his contributions to Israeli society.

Education Minister Yoav Gallant announced that the prize would go to Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, for his decades of work in the organization.

In addition to Meshi-Zahav, the prize was also awarded to former Foreign Ministry director-general Joseph Ciechanover, for his work in the civil service.

Meshi-Zahav, 61, 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.

The prize selection committee said in a statement that Meshi-Zahav has made an “outstanding” contribution to advancing assistance at disaster events and creating unity in Israeli society while having “a sense of purpose and a true belief in the need to build bridges and hold dialogue.”

For three decades now Meshi-Zahav has led Zaka, which has become an essential element of Israeli’s emergency response operations at home as well as abroad, the statement said, and he “is an example and role model for the spirit of volunteering in Israeli society in all its forms.”

In addition to providing emergency response services and assisting in search and rescue operations, Zaka also helps in the grim task of finding and identifying body parts following terror attacks, air crashes and other disasters. Meshi-Zahav was once swiped by a lioness during a training trip to South Africa. He said at the time he did not require any medical treatment beyond a tetanus shot.

Joseph Ciechanover, left, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, September 20, 2015. (Kobi Gideon / GPO)

Regarding Ciechanover, the committee said he was given the prize for “his significant contribution to the state in the fields of security, economy, law and foreign relations — in and out of public service.”

Ciechanover, 87, “had a decisive influence on the advancement of the interests of the State of Israel in many crucial areas, such as: the peace agreement with Egypt, the regulation of foreign relations in times of peace and crisis, and in key activities related to state security — both visible and hidden from view.”

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