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More speak up about ‘widely known’ alleged sexual abuse by ZAKA founder

More people have reportedly come forward with accusations of sexual assault and abuse by the co-founder and former chairman of the ZAKA volunteer emergency, amid claims that the alleged attacks were commonly known in some parts of the ultra-Orthodox community.

Police were set Sunday to begin examining several accusations against Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, but will have to find viable a case within the statute of limitations, according to media reports.

Meshi-Zahav announced Friday that he was “taking a time out” from his role in the organization and also giving up the prestigious Israel Prize, which he had been set to receive this year.

The investigation begins as more light was shed on claims that Meshi-Zahav’s behavior was known about for years within the ultra-Orthodox community, but a code of silence had been maintained.

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.

He was initially accused Thursday of sexual assault, rape, and abuse by six people in a report by the Haaretz daily.

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

Shana Aaronson, director-general of Magen, told Army Radio on Sunday that her organization, a nonprofit that works to support survivors of sexual abuse, first heard rumors about Meshi-Zahav a few years ago but “there was no one who was prepared to speak about what happened. Just a few months ago we began to get specific testimonies.”

Tzviki Fleishman, a senior investigator for Magen, told the Kan public broadcaster that the organization has received over six new claims.

“We need to clarify them,” Fleishman said. “The rumors about him were also known to us years ago, but there was nothing concrete to work with.”

A woman identified only as Tal told the Ynet news site that Meshi-Zahav caused her parents to divorce after he sexually exploited her mother. Tal said that Meshi-Zahav later also made advances to her.

Tal said that her family lived in Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim neighborhood and her mother, who was 20 at the time of her second pregnancy, became depressed and Meshi-Zahav took advantage of her mental state, Tal said.

“Behind my father’s back [Meshi-Zahav] turned her into his sex slave,” she said, adding that Meshi-Zahav took advantage of her mother for several months.

“One day my father came home unexpectedly and caught them together, and from there it led to divorce. Yehuda broke apart our family,” said Tal, who eventually left the ultra-Orthodox community at the age of 12.

Some years later she ran into Meshi-Zahav in a shop on Jaffa Street in Jerusalem, close to the ZAKA headquarters.

According to Tal, when Meshi-Zahav recognized her he said, “Perhaps you will come up to my office and I will get to know you more closely like I knew your mother?”

After initially leaving the store in shame, she returned to shout at Meshi-Zahav, she said.

At the time, there was a friend of hers working in the store who had also left the religious community. Tal said that after the clash with Meshi-Zahav, the friend one day approached her in tears and told he had just come from Meshi-Zahav’s office and that the ZAKA chief touched him inappropriately and “forced him to do things” in return for NIS 100 (approximately $30).

Another friend of hers told her that Meshi-Zahav had proposed to her a large payment of money if he could watch her commit an act of bestiality, Tal said.

“The man is a pervert,” Tal said and recalled that after she heard that Meshi-Zahav was to get the Israel Prize she began to “shake all over.”

“It brought things back for me,” she said. “I am crying but glad that in the end it is all coming out.”

Tal assessed that Meshi-Zahav’s abuse had impacted thousands of people.

“He did not stop at any means,” she said. “He went for everything. He’s a crazy man.”

Tal said that after she posted on Facebook about her experiences she was contacted by dozens of other people claiming they suffered abuse, including ZAKA workers.

She said that although she has told them all to file complaints, they have told her they don’t feel able to.

“They don’t want to deal with this at the moment,” she said.

So far, since the initial Haaretz report last week, no one has filed a complaint with the police, Ynet reported.

Yaakov, described as a former close friend of Meshi-Zahav, told Ynet that he heard about the abuse claims for a long time. Though he was never witness to any incidents himself, he said the rumors were well-known, and a male friend said that Meshi-Zahav had tried to have sex with him.

“People said he is a big pervert,” Yaakov said. “I remember that we laughed about it that he would even do a cat in a skirt.”

He said that acquaintances of Meshi-Zahav related that they had warned the ZAKA chief against running for Knesset because his past would come to light.

“But they didn’t think it would come out when he won the Israel Prize,” Yaakov said. “He didn’t believe it himself.”

Yaakov assessed that by giving up on the prize Meshi-Zahav was showing his guilt and that more cases will become known.

He predicted that the coming days will see more and more people coming forward.

“Once there is a buzz in the media, people really realize that he has done things that an ordinary person does not do,” he said.

Yaakov claimed that Meshi-Zahav was able to avoid police investigation for so long because he would help the force in other cases by providing information.

There have also been others who now claim Meshi-Zahav behaved in an inappropriate manner.

Frieda Goldstein, 29, told Ynet when she was 18 when she received sexual messages from Meshi-Zahav. She said Meshi-Zahav had asked to meet her but she turned him down, even though she was curious as to why he wanted to see her.

“When I said that I don’t want to meet him he started to describe to me what he would do when we meet. He wrote ‘I will put you on a table and then I will enter you from behind.’”

Goldstein said that as an ultra-Orthodox girl she was shocked at the message. When she spoke to others about it “everyone said to me that he is a pervert and that he is involved with underage girls. No one was surprised.”

Another woman, Noga Tal, told Ynet that her grandparents lived close to Meshi-Zahav and she would visit them as a child.

She said he heard rumors at the time of those who were assaulted by the man “but in the ultra-Orthodox community these incidents are swept under the carpet.”

Of the six allegations reported by Haaretz, 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.

One victim 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.

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.

Source: Stuart Winer – TOI

Header: In this Jan. 5, 2005 file photo, Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, head of Israel’s renowned ZAKA rescue service, arrives at the Yan Yao Buddhist temple in Takuapa, Thailand (AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)