JERUSALEM (AP) – For decades, Yehuda Meshi-Zahav was one of Israel’s most recognizable faces, widely respected for founding an ultra-Orthodox rescue service that cared for the victims of Palestinian attacks and bridged the gap between religious and secular Israelis. .
But in recent days, Meshi-Zahav has faced a growing list of accusers who say he committed horrendous acts of sexual abuse of men, women and children over several decades.
The scandal has practically destroyed the reputation of a man who just a few weeks ago received the Israel Prize, the country’s highest civilian honor, for his lifetime achievements. It has also shed light on the scourge of sexual abuse in the island world of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community.
“When it comes to the ultra-Orthodox in particular, there is a very strong code of silence,” said Manny Waks, an advocate for victims of sexual abuse in Jewish communities and himself a survivor of abuse in his native Australia.
“There is a closed community mentality, us against them. Putting all of those things together is a recipe for disaster, in the context of child sexual abuse in particular, ”he said.
While Meshi-Zahav has denied the allegations, his accusers have provided similar accounts. They say Meshi-Zahav exploited his public prominence to sexually abuse and exploit women, boys and girls alike, and that the ultra-Orthodox community protected him with a wall of silence.
A victim identified with the letter “N” told Yedioth Ahronot newspaper on Sunday that he met Meshi-Zahav in 1996 when he was 16 years old and Meshi-Zahav was 20 years older than him.
“All the people close to him during those years knew that I was his companion. I became a prostitute in the full sense of the word, ”she said.
Meshi-Zahav was once a member of a radical ultra-Orthodox sect that opposed the existence of Israel, believing that a Jewish state could only be established after the arrival of the Messiah. His point of view changed after a devastating 1989 bus attack near Jerusalem killed 16 people.
Meshi-Zahav joined the volunteers who helped collect the remains of the victims, in accordance with the Jewish custom of honoring the dead. He said that experience taught him that everyone’s pain was the same.
Those efforts led to the formation of ZAKA in 1995, whose volunteers helped identify victims of disasters and suicide bombings and collected their remains for a Jewish burial. Over time, the group expanded to include first responders and gained widespread respect in Israel.
Meshi-Zahav has received numerous honors and became a symbol of restraint in the often strained relations between Israel’s secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews.
He was invited to light a ceremonial torch at Israel’s Independence Day celebrations and recently implored members of the ultra-Orthodox community to respect coronavirus safety precautions after his parents died of COVID-19. At the time, he said that the rabbis who encouraged his followers to ignore the safety rules had “blood on their hands.”
Earlier this month, Meshi-Zahav, 61, received the Israel Lifetime Achievement Award. She burst into tears when the Minister of Education, Yoav Gallant, broke the news and said that the award belonged to the thousands of ZAKA volunteers.
That recognition seems to have been the trigger that has led his accusers to come forward after years of silence.
It began last Thursday, when the Haaretz newspaper published accounts of six alleged victims accusing Meshi-Zahav of rape, sexual abuse and harassment.
In response, Meshi-Zahav wrote a letter saying “these libels are unfounded and seem more like gossip and account closings against me.” He said he was taking a break as director of ZAKA and resigned from the Israel Prize, but denied any wrongdoing.
Since then, the trickle of testimonials has turned into a torrent.
On Sunday, the Israeli police announced that its major crimes unit, Lahav 433, had opened a formal investigation. On Monday, Hebrew media reported that the police had investigated similar allegations against him in 2013, but had closed the investigation for lack of evidence.
Meanwhile, ZAKA issued a statement expressing “shock and amazement”, saying that the accusations against Meshi-Zahav “arouse deep loathing, shock and disgust, light years away from the values that characterize the organization.”
It is difficult to obtain statistics on sexual abuse in the ultra-Orthodox world.
Waks, who runs advocacy group VoiCSA, said the general estimate in Israeli society is that one in six boys and one in four girls have suffered sexual abuse. He said there is nothing to suggest that the numbers are different in the ultra-Orthodox world.
“Many of us would argue that there are greater vulnerabilities that would translate into more abuses,” he said. These include the lack of sex education, the inability to closely monitor children due to large families, and the general level of trust among adults in tight-knit communities.
He called the allegations against Meshi-Zahav “shocking but not surprising,” and said he hoped they would encourage other alleged victims to come forward. He also urged Israel to abolish the statute of limitations in such cases.
The current statute of limitations for sexual abuse in the family or with a close member of the community, such as a teacher or doctor, is set at 20 years from the time the victim turns 18. to five years and 10 years in cases of rape.
In a landmark case that shed light on abuses in the ultra-Orthodox world, Israel extradited Malka Leifer, a former ultra-Orthodox teacher wanted on 74 counts of child sexual abuse, to Australia in January after a protracted legal battle.
Shana Aaronson, executive director of Magen for Jewish Communities, an Israeli advocacy group for survivors of sexual abuse, said at least six people have approached the organization about Meshi-Zahav. He said the first signs of allegations emerged about six years ago.
“The person was not willing to discuss it further, go to the police or anything like that,” he said.
She said the spectrum of complaints that have surfaced against Meshi-Zahav “paints a picture of a certain personality of someone who was incredibly confident that he would just get away with it.”
The Israel Ministry of Education, which awards the Israel Prize, has yet to comment on Meshi-Zahav. But Miriam Peretz, a member of the award committee and winner of the Israel Prize, has spoken out.
“All members of the committee categorically condemn this whole horrible affair,” he told Israeli public broadcaster Kan.