She read the descriptions again and again and felt scared. For L., the testimony Haaretz published last week about sexual assaults committed by Yehuda Meshi-Zahav were much more than stories.
She could imagine herself there, in his room, afraid. Except that “imagine” isn’t the right word – she remembered it.
It was only seven years ago, when she was experiencing a major personal crisis. “I no longer wanted to live,” she said. An acquaintance told her that Meshi-Zahav, the famed founder of the Zaka emergency response organization, could help her.
“Until then, I knew him and his family only from a distance,” L. said. But she decided to contact him and went to Zaka’s offices in Jerusalem.
For a long time, she didn’t want to talk about what happened next. Haaretz reporters contacted her during their research for the investigative report published last week, but she was afraid to tell her story. She said she was paralyzed by her fear of Meshi-Zahav, and even feared that he was behind Haaretz’s questions.
“I didn’t believe I was talking to you,” she explained. “I was sure Yehuda had sent someone to me to find out whether I was talking.”
Only this week, after the exposé was published, did she muster the courage to describe what happened to her in Zaka’s offices one day in 2014.
L., 33 years old
There was a lot of activity outside Meshi-Zahav’s office, which made it a typical workday. She went in to see him.
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“I told him about my situation, and he didn’t even listen all that much,” she said. “He simply approached me and began stroking and touching my chest. I looked at him and said, ‘Okay, enough already, I came to talk to you, be serious for a moment.’ I tried to move his hand, but he kept going. He put his hand under my shirt and said, ‘I’ll help you.’”
The office door was open, but it didn’t matter. He continued rubbing himself against her and tried to undress her. He didn’t even seem to be trying to hide what was happening.
“It didn’t bother him,” she said. “He had the authority and the power.”
She was terrified. “He induced a paralyzing fear that’s impossible to explain,” she said. “You can’t tell him no, because who knows what he would do? Maybe he’d get up and close the door and leave me inside? I was afraid to move lest he actually rape me.”
After a while, she gathered her courage and told him she had to go to the bathroom. She then left the room and didn’t return.
“Had this gone on, he would have raped me,” she said. “I’m certain the worst part has been erased from my memory. He didn’t rape me, but he did touch me in a place that made me say to myself, ‘Dear me, what a man, he surely does this to other girls.’ I remember that he touched me in a very crude way.”
L. left the building in tears. She didn’t want to tell anyone her story. It was several years before she told anyone that Meshi-Zahav had assaulted her, and even then she was stingy with the details (the man she said she told about the attack confirmed it).
“I was emotionally weak, as a driven leaf,” she said. “He ran roughshod over me at the most difficult time.”
L.’s story joins the six that Haaretz reported last week and three others that have since been reported by other media outlets. Although the police reopened an investigation against Meshi-Zahavfollowing Haaretz’s investigation, the statute of limitations has expired on many of these incidents, so they can’t be used in criminal proceedings.
L.’s case is the exception, since it happened in 2014. But she’s afraid to file an official complaint. She’s still scared of Meshi-Zahav.
G., 8 years old
G. met Meshi-Zahav by chance when he was 8 years old. He was sitting on the steps of a building in Jerusalem waiting for a friend. Meshi-Zahav lived in the same building at that time, and when he passed the boy on the stairs, he persuaded G. to come with him.
“I was a child and didn’t understand anything then,” G. said. “I don’t remember exactly what he said to me. Maybe ‘Come help me, come with me to the office’ ... I don’t know why I went there with him.”
They went to Meshi-Zahav’s office on the fourth floor of a building on Shivtei Yisrael Street. When they arrived, the man sat the boy on his lap – “right on his [sex] organ,” G. said.
“I remember I felt that it bothered me. I told him, ‘Yehuda, this is bothering me.’ And he said, ‘One more minute, one more minute.’ Then he told me, ‘Stand in the corner.’
“Today, in hindsight, I understand what happened there – he sexually abused me. That was his craving.”
G. doesn’t remember exactly how long he spent sitting on Meshi-Zahav’s penis or what the man did when he asked G. to stand next to the wall. “I never told anyone; it was embarrassing,” he added.
But this week, after the story broke, it all came back to him. And in addition to telling Haaretz, he also told his story to a police investigator, albeit unofficially.
“I very much hope we’ll soon see him in handcuffs,” he said. “But the moment I saw that he had given up the Israel Prize, that was enough. For me, it closes a circle.”
G. said the Meshi-Zahav story had become the talk of the town in Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Mea She’arim neighborhood: “That’s all they talk about. They’re bringing up stories from the past.”
But even though the silence has been broken, there is still great fear of Meshi-Zahav, and this fear remains paralyzing. “My friends are certain Yehuda will get out of this and come back,” G. said. “I spoke with someone today and he said, ‘Don’t talk to me, I’m certain they’re bugging my phone.’”
G. himself felt relief mixed with great anger at the community’s rabbis, who are ignoring the story and therefore aren’t enabling the victims to talk. “Why hasn’t a single rabbi come out against him?” he asked. “How do you want us to come testify if no rabbi gives the instruction?”
This absence of any encouragement to speak out – from either the rabbis or the many people who, according to the victims, knew what was happening but kept silent – is one of the recurrent motifs in all the stories. And these stories aren’t just about sexual assaults.
People who spoke with Haaretz talked repeatedly about Meshi-Zahav’s great preoccupation with sex of all kinds. In one case, the story is even backed by a recording made a few months ago. In this recording, a copy of which was obtained by Haaretz, Meshi-Zahav asks a young man who works in prostitution to organize some men for an orgy with a woman he knows.
“Listen, she’s sick, she wants a gang bang,” Meshi-Zahav says in the recording. “She wants five men who will make her a slut, a real sex slave. But on condition that the guys be hunks, not real big and not hairy. And we’ll give her the full treatment today. At first, when she lies on her stomach, they’ll give her a massage, like you know how to do. And then, slowly, slowly, we’ll start stripping her and ... [it will be] a real party.”
Meshi-Zahav’s lawyer, Ephraim Damari, stated in response, “Anyone who hears the recording understands that it’s an inappropriate conversation between friends that’s lacking any true intent.”
H., 14 years old
When H. met Meshi-Zahav, he knew it was for sex, he just didn’t know with whom. He was 14 years old; the chairman of the Zaka organization suggested they go up to his parents’ home. He was told that two girls were waiting for him there and he could have sex with them. He was excited by the opportunity and went along with the older man. The two entered a room in the apartment, but no one was waiting there except “a bed on the left side,” H. says. “He told me the girls would come later.”
Meshi-Zahav undressed hurriedly and got H. to undress as well. “I froze and don’t remember exactly what he did to me,” he said. “But I remember he licked me.”
After it was over H. returned home. His parents had already heard “stories.” “When I got home my father hit me,” he recalls. “Because people told him I was seen that day with Meshi-Zahav and it was forbidden.”
He didn’t talk about what exactly took place in the apartment and says he didn’t even tell his friends, some of whom had been assaulted themselves by Meshi-Zahav and wondered what H. was doing with him.
He gave them a softened version of the incident, saying he succeeded in getting away before Meshi-Zahav touched him.
In a conversation with Haaretz this week he said that he was surprised the testimonies only started surfacing now. “My event was a one-time thing, not systematic like with some of my friends. Everyone knew, I don’t understand how it blew up only now.”
S., 12 years old
In S.’s neighborhood everyone knew Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, a well connected man in a high position. Even S., who was only 12 at the time, knew that. But there was something she didn’t understand, something that happened repeatedly when she looked from her apartment’s window on the first floor to the street.
“He always came in his car, parked under our window and open his trousers,” she told Haaretz. “I was 12 and didn’t understand what he was doing, it really scared me. He was in his car and I was on the floor above. Sometimes my sister was with me. He was always waiting for us. He’d sit there, watching, open his trousers and start touching himself.”
S. said this wasn’t a one-time incident but several occurrences over time. At the time she didn’t understand what was going on. “I’d never seen a man’s sexual organ in my life,” she said. “I didn’t talk about it with my parents and we didn’t talk about it among my brothers and sisters either.”
A year later, due to unfortunate circumstances, she began to understand. She was 13 and was sexually assaulted by another man. “Only then did I understand what he was doing,” she said.
A few years went by. When she was 16 she would occasionally ran into Meshi-Zahav in the street. “He used to try to make a pass at me but I kept my distance,” she said. “It didn’t develop beyond an exchange of words.”
Damari said in response: “The falsehoods and lies in the article deserve one single response: A libel suit that will be filed a few days after the article is published against all those behind it, and that’s a promise.”