In the wake of sexual assault allegations revealed in a Haaretz report published Thursday, Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, founder of the Zaka rescue organization and recent recipient of the Israel Prize for Lifetime Achievement, announced Friday that he is relinquishing his prize and stepping down from his role at the organization.
Following the Haaretz report, the Israel Police announced Friday morning that they will open a probe into the claims against Meshi-Zahav.
In a letter to Zaka's members and volunteers, Meshi-Zahav explained that he was relinquishing his prize "out of deep concern for this holy organization that I have built with my own two hands." Meshi-Zahav added, "I have drawn the obvious conclusion from this storm – Even if the accusations against me are baseless, and most likely gossip and a settling of vendettas against me."
"As a first step, I am asking to relinquish the honor bestowed upon me with the decision to award me the Israel Prize," Meshi-Zahav said. "Secondly, the situation I find myself in necessitates that I temporarily step down from my position at the organization until the storm passes," Meshi-Zahav said.
Zaka said on Friday that its members and volunteers were completely shocked by the revelations. "The organization's management trusts the investigative authorities to examine, in the most professional manner, the issues that require a probe," it said in a statement. The organization added that Zaka's mission "is stronger than any consideration or role, and the organization will continue to conduct its work for the sake of Israel's citizens, with dedication and loyalty."
The investigation published in Haaretz provided evidence of assault and sexual exploitation by Meshi-Zahav going back to the 1980s. Six accusers told Haaretz that Meshi-Zahav took advantage of his status, power, money and even the organization he heads to assault teenagers and younger children, both boys and girls, without regard to the ages, gender or matial status of his victims. According to the investigation, many around Meshi-Zahav reportedly knew about his actions, but did not tell anyone or report him to the police.
Because the statute of limitations applies to much of the testimony presented in the Haaretz investigation, the police will not be able to investigate it further. However, the statute of limitations has not run out with respect to the case of Z., who claims she was forcibly stripped and raped by Meshi-Zahav when she was in her 20s. That investigation can resume from where it left off, when it was closed in 2014. In addition, more allegations will likely come to light now that the police has opened an investigation and in the wake of the Haaretz investigation.
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Earlier on Friday, Labor Chairwoman Merav Michaeli had praised the police for their prompt response, shared her hopes that the investigation soon be completed and emphasized that the police should respond this way in all sexual assault cases. She also noted that while the evidence presented is difficult and shocking, "we believe the victims who unveiled their abuse with great courage."
As she had on Thursday, Michaeli once more called on the Education Minister to suspend the grant of the Israel Prize to Meshi-Zahav, characterizing it as a "necessary step in light of the publication of the [Haaretz] investigation until the end of the police investigation into the matter."
Yamina lawmaker Matan Kahana said on Friday afternoon that it's worth holding off on giving Meshi-Zahav the prize, pending the results of the investigation, while expressing hope that the allegations are not true.
The Haaretz investigation brought, among other things, the story of N. who began volunteering at Zaka in the mid-1990s when he was 16, and thereby got to know Meshi-Zahav. According to N., Meshi-Zahav wanted to have full intercourse with him and repeatedly tried to persuade him." We did everything, but there was no penetration. He tried a few times and I refused. "
In return for the sex he received other “rewards,” standard practice for Meshi-Zahav, according to the testimonies obtained by Haaretz. He would give money and gifts to men and women with whom he was having a sexual relationship.
In some cases he “paid” them in other ways. N., for example, received occasional rides to Tel Aviv for meetings with prostitutes. Other time he was sent on sexual encounters with other women Meshi-Zahav knew.
This month Meshi-Zahav was named a winner of an Israel Prize, the country’s most prestigious award, for his life’s work and contribution to society. The award is due to be bestowed on Independence Day next month.
Meshi-Zahav denied all allegations brought against him in a lengthy response to Haaretz's request for comment ahead of the publication of the investigation. "Publication of this article is an attempt to settle accounts with me and, regrettably, to destroy me as well."