Netanyahu says alleged misconduct 'unacceptable'

ZAKA founder goes to police to deny sexual abuse accusations, is turned away

Police tell Yehuda Meshi-Zahav they’re not summoning him for questioning yet; ‘modesty patrol’ member says abuse by the ‘ultra-Orthodox Jeffrey Epstein’ was well known

Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, head of Israel's ZAKA emergency services unit, at the scene of a suicide bombing. (Flash90/File)
Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, head of Israel's ZAKA emergency services unit, at the scene of a suicide bombing. (Flash90/File)

Seeking to deny numerous accusations against him of rape and other sexual abuse, the co-founder and chairman of the ZAKA volunteer emergency response group arrived uninvited at the police serious crimes headquarters Monday, and was turned away.

Officers at the Lahav 433 serious crime unit, who on Sunday opened an investigation into claims against Yehuda Meshi-Zahav going back decades, refused to take testimony from him, as he had yet to be summoned for questioning.

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.

Meshi-Zahav’s lawyer, Ephraim Dimri, said Monday that his client, to demonstrate his own innocence, “initiated the unusual move and presented himself for questioning at Lahav 433. He has nothing to hide.”

General view of the Lahav 443 police unit headquarters, in the city of Lod on November 4, 2019. (Flash90/File)

A source in the self-described “modesty patrol” told the Ynet news site that the allegations against Meshi-Zahav were well known in the Jerusalem ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim.

“What has been published is just the tip of the iceberg,” the activist said, adding that Meshi-Zahav was “the Haredi Jeffrey Epstein.”

Informal “modesty patrols” have been known to operate in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods and towns to enforce — sometimes violently — a strict reading of Jewish views on modesty and propriety.

The “modesty patrol” activist said that in Meshi-Zahav’s case, enforcement ultimately failed, and that “the plan was to simply castrate him.”

“A number of patrol members broke into an apartment where he did what he did, and caught him red-handed — but Meshi-Zahav managed to slip away. He was so close to being beaten to a pulp where circumcision is performed,” the source said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made his first statement Monday regarding the sex scandal, telling Army Radio that the alleged incidents are “terrible things. I hope this is not true. This is unacceptable.”

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. 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 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.”

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

Another said Meshi-Zahav repeatedly abused him when he was a teen, only realizing years later that he had been the man’s “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 that 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. 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 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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