Israel Prize for Lifetime Achievement Awarded to Founder of Emergency Rescue Organization

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Yehuda Meshi-Zahav and Education Minister Yoav Gallant on Tuesday
Yehuda Meshi-Zahav and Education Minister Yoav Gallant on TuesdayCredit: Oded Karni / GPO

The Israel Prize for Lifetime Achievement will be awarded this year to Former Foreign Ministry Director General Joseph Ciechanover and to Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, founder of the Zaka emergency rescue organization, Education Minister Yoav Gallant announced Tuesday. The prize will be awarded on Independence Day.

Ciechanover, 87, has held a number of senior diplomatic and security positions. In the 1960s he was the Agriculture Ministry’s legal adviser, and in this context was involved in passing the Nature Protection Law and establishing the Israel Land Administration. He was a legal adviser to the defense establishment, and as such was involved in legislation connected to the ombudsman of the Israel Defense Forces, the rights of disabled veterans and arms imports and exports. During the 1970s he was head of the Defense Ministry delegation in the United States and Canada.

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In the Begin government, he served as Foreign Ministry director general and participated in the peace talks with Egypt. He also headed the War on Drugs Council and was a member of the President and Prime Minister Memorial Council. He represented Israel in the UN committee that investigated the Israeli raid on the Gaza-bound flotilla in 2010, and in 2019 represented Israel in the reconciliation talks with Poland following the passage of Polish legislation criminalizing the publication of what Poland deems offensive references to its role in the Holocaust.

Ciechanover “had a decisive influence on the advancement of the interests of the State of Israel in many crucial areas,” both visible and hidden, the prize jury said in explaining its decision.

Education Minister Yoav Gallant and Foreign Foreign Ministry Director General Joseph Ciechanover on TuesdayCredit: Oded Karni / GPO

Meshi-Zahav, 61, founded Zaka (the name is a Hebrew acronym for “disaster victims' identification”) in 1989. The organization now has thousands of volunteers throughout the country. He was raised in an anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) home, and in his youth led numerous demonstrations in Jerusalem. According to the prize jury, his attitude changed in 1989, when he was at the scene of the Bus 405 attack, in which an Arab terrorist grabbed the steering wheel and ran it off a steep cliff just outside Jerusalem, killing 16 people. It was there, the committee wrote, that Meshi-Zahav “began a dialogue with different people in Israeli society,” which led him to “recognize the shared fate of the Jewish people.”

Zaka searches for and rescues missing people on land and sea; tends to victims of terror attacks, accidents and disasters; and gathers human remains from the scenes of terror attacks to assure proper identification and burial. The organization has become a crucial element in the country’s emergency response operations, both in Israel and abroad.

Meshi-Zahav made headlines of a different sort in January, when both of his parents died of complications from COVID-19 within a few days of each other, only weeks after his brother had died of a different illness. He has publicly warned of the dangers of ignoring the Health Ministry's coronavirus directives.

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