Jerusalem — 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 victims of Palestinian attacks and bridged the divide 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 all but destroyed the reputation of a man who just weeks ago received the Israel Prize, the country’s highest civilian honor, for his lifetime achievements. It also has shined a light on the scourge of sexual abuse in the insular 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 sex abuse in Jewish communities and himself a survivor of abuse in his native Australia.
“There is a closed community mentality, us vs. them. Putting all 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 delivered similar accounts. They say Meshi-Zahav exploited his public prominence to molest and sexually exploit women, boys and girls alike, and that the ultra-Orthodox community shielded him with a wall of silence.
A victim identified by the letter “N” told the Yedioth Ahronot daily on Sunday that he first met Meshi-Zahav in 1996 when he was 16 and Meshi-Zahav was 20 years his senior.
“All the people close to him during those years knew that I was his escort boy. I turned into a prostitute in the full meaning of the word,” he said.
Meshi-Zahav was once a member of a radical ultra-Orthodox sect that opposed Israel’s existence, believing a Jewish state could only be established after the arrival of the Messiah. His views changed after a devastating 1989 bus attack near Jerusalem killed 16 people.
Meshi-Zahav joined volunteers who helped collect the remains of the victims, in line with the Jewish custom of honoring the dead. He has said the experience taught him that everyone’s pain was equal.
Those efforts led to the formation in 1995 of ZAKA, whose volunteers helped identify the victims of disasters and suicide bombings and collected their remains for a Jewish burial. Over time, the group expanded to include first response paramedics and gained widespread respect in Israel.
Meshi-Zahav has received numerous honors and became a symbol of moderation 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 fellow members of the ultra-Orthodox community to respect coronavirus safety precautions after both of his parents died of COVID-19. At the time, he said the rabbis who encouraged followers to ignore the safety rules had “blood on their hands.”
Early this month, Meshi-Zahav, 61, was awarded the Israel Prize for Lifetime Achievement. He broke down in tears as Education Minister Yoav Gallant delivered the news, saying the award belonged to ZAKA’s thousands of volunteers.
That recognition appears to have been the trigger that has led his accusers to come forward after years of silence.
It began last Thursday, when the Haaretz daily published accounts from six alleged victims accusing Meshi-Zahav of rape, sexual molestation and harassment.
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