ZAKA officials suspected of financial fraud, misdirecting funds — report

TV investigation is latest blow to rescue organization after co-founder Yehuda Meshi-Zahav stepped aside amid sexual assault allegations

ZAKA Chairman Yehuda Meshi-Zahav (2L) gives the Israel team a final briefing before they depart for Ethiopia, March 10, 2018. (Courtesy)
ZAKA Chairman Yehuda Meshi-Zahav (2L) gives the Israel team a final briefing before they depart for Ethiopia, March 10, 2018. (Courtesy)

The ZAKA rescue service is suspected of using shadow organizations to funnel millions of dollars of donations to private use, even as the organization faced bankruptcy, Channel 13 reported Wednesday.

The report was the latest blow for the organization and its high-profile founder, Yehuda Meshi-Zahav.

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

A man filed a formal sexual assault complaint Wednesday against Meshi-Zahav at police headquarters. Police are investigating the claims.

According to the Channel 13 investigation, ZAKA leaders were in the past accused of using similarly named organizations to take in donations meant for the rescue organization. One of the organizations was headed by Meshi-Zahav’s brother Remi.

The report said police opened an investigation into Meshi-Zahav over the financial improprieties several years ago but closed it in 2013 due to “lack of public interest.”

However, Channel 13 found that even after the police probe, groups pretending to be ZAKA continued to fundraise in the group’s name, as recently as 2019.

The incidents came when ZAKA and Meshi Zahav were facing bankruptcy proceedings, even though Meshi-Zahav continued to live a lavish lifestyle in 5-star hotels and a multi-million dollar villa, the TV report said.

Meshi-Zahav and other ZAKA officials denied all the allegations.

The report said that just like the sexual abuse allegations, reports of financial impropriety also dated back many years, including one complaint sent to police by a volunteer from 2006.

In response, 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. Presenting the allegations without context knowingly and intentionally misleads the public, and harms thousands of the organization’s volunteers and employees,” it added.

ZAKA is a major part of Israel’s emergency response services at home and abroad.

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.

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.

Yehuda Meshi-Zahav with his mother Sarah in an undated picture. (Courtesy Mendy Hachtman)

Meshi-Zahav 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. Both his parents died of COVID-19.

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