Police on Friday said they were probing allegations that prominent Haredi activist Yehuda Meshi-Zahav was responsible for rape and multiple other sexual offenses, including against minors, that spanned decades.
The explosive claims came to light in an investigative report in the Haaretz newspaper Thursday night.
Several hours after the announcement, Meshi-Zahav, the co-founder and chairman of the ZAKA volunteer emergency response group, announced that he was stepping down from his role in the organization and also giving up the prestigious Israel Prize which he had been set to receive this year.
In a letter to ZAKA volunteers, Meshi-Zahav repeated his denial of the “baseless” and “libelous” allegations and lamented the potential damage to the organization he founded and has headed for decades.
“As a first step, I would like to give up the honor of the Israel Prize,” he wrote.
“Second of all, the situation requires me to take a break from my roles in the organization until the cloud is lifted.”
Earlier Friday, an advocacy group for sexual abuse survivors and two members of the Knesset had called for the Israel Prize to be revoked from Meshi-Zahav.
Magen for Jewish Communities, a non-profit that works to support survivors of sexual abuse and was involved in exposing the alleged abuse, said Education Minister Yoav Gallant and members of the prize committee should “do the right and proper thing and immediately annul Yehuda Meshi-Zahav’s prize win.”
It decried the notion that “the victims bleed on the wayside while he, the offender, will win honor and a prize awarded in the name of the Israeli people.”
Labor party chief Merav Michaeli similarly called on Gallant to freeze Meshi-Zahav’s win until the police investigation concludes.
“These are difficult and shocking testimonies. I believe the victims who bravely revealed the harm done to them,” she said in a tweet, adding that Labor would next week unveil its plan to “eliminate sexual violence in Israel.”
Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg said the testimonies against Meshi-Zahav were “nauseating” and that he had been “revealed as a cruel predator who certainly is not worthy of the Israeli Prize.”
She added: “To the many victims who exposed these things with bravery, that is not taken for granted — I believe you.”
However, Meshi-Zahav ended up giving up the prize of his own accord.
Meanwhile, Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, a Founder of the Tzohar Rabbinical Organization, said the allegations are grave and should be fully investigated, but called not to pass immediate judgment against Meshi-Zahav.
“When a complaint of sexual abuse comes to light — you do not pass judgment,” he wrote for the Srugim website. “We do not trust that everything did indeed happen, but rather trust that everything must be investigated.
Calling for full support for the alleged victims in hearing out their stories, he warned that “the small chance that these are false accusations obligates us to allow [Meshi-Zahav] to have his say, to defend himself, and to hear him out fully.”
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 Yehuda Meshi-Zahav were made by both men and women, some of whom were minors at the time of the alleged events.
Meshi-Zahav took advantage of his status, power, money, and even the organization he heads to commit sexual assault, the Haaretz report said.
One alleged victim said he forcibly undressed her and raped her after offering financial aid. The woman said that while 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.
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.
At least one case reached police, but was closed in 2014 due to a lack of evidence. The case also involved Meshi-Zahav’s brothers, Moshe and Rami. Rami was eventually convicted of raping a relative and imprisoned, the report said.
Moshe and Yehuda were suspected of assaulting 16-year-old girls, and Yehuda was suspected of rape, which he denied. Moshe fled the country after the case was opened, and returned a few months ago, but died shortly after.
The investigators turned up one alleged rape victim, a woman in her 20s, but she refused to file a complaint against Meshi-Zahav, as did the other women he was suspected of assaulting in the case. The investigation was closed and its existence was not made public.
Magen for Jewish Communities director Shana Aaronson told The Times of Israel the alleged assaults were especially shocking due to Meshi-Zahav’s community standing.
“It’s always incredibly painful to hear terrible stories of sexual abuse by a trusted figure in a victim’s life,” Aaronson said. “In the case of Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, many in the community find it incomprehensible to imagine that a man who is so well-known and beloved could be capable of such horrific acts against innocent and vulnerable children and adults.
“As difficult as it is to hear these allegations, it is far more painful to have experienced them. As a community, we need to rally around the victims whose lives have been devastated not only by the abuse, but the secondary trauma of knowing that their abuser is known and heralded by many as a hero,” Aaronson said.
Meshi-Zahav denied the allegations, telling the paper the claims “are baseless” and will cause “irrevocable damage” to his good name.
He added: “It seems to me that Haaretz has fallen victim to parties with commercial and economic interests who have long sought to harm me.”
He also cited various “extreme parts of the Haredi world” who are angry at the fact that his children have enlisted in the military and that he took part in national Independence Day celebrations in 2003. “They have launched a vendetta campaign against me,” he said.
“The report is an attempt to ‘settle accounts’ with me and to destroy me,” he said. “So long as I have the strength to do so, I will continue to serve the people of Israel and the State of Israel as I have done my whole life.”
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 Gallant announced that the prize would go to Meshi-Zahav for his decades of work in ZAKA.
The prize selection committee said in a statement that Meshi-Zahav had 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 Meshi-Zahav has led ZAKA, which has become an essential element of Israel’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.”
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.
Founded in 1989, ZAKA is one of Israel’s most recognizable emergency response groups and has responded to various disasters in other countries.
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.