ZAKA officials suspected of financial fraud, misdirecting funds — report

The ZAKA rescue service, under former head Yehuda Meshi-Zahav is suspected of using shadow organizations to funnel millions of dollars of donations to private use, even as the organization faced bankruptcy, Channel 13 reported Wednesday.

The report was the latest blow for the organization and its high-profile founder.

Meshi-Zahav was accused last week of sexual assault, rape, and abuse by six people in an Haaretz report, which said there are likely many more cases. More alleged victims have come forward since the newspaper investigation was released, as well as reports that Meshi-Zahav’s alleged crimes were widely known in some parts of the ultra-Orthodox community.

A man filed a formal sexual assault complaint Wednesday against Meshi-Zahav at police headquaters.

According to the Channel 13 investigation, ZAKA leaders were in the past accused of using similarly named organizations to take in donations meant for the rescue organization. One of the organizations was headed by Meshi-Zahav’s brother Remi.

The report said police opened an investigation into Meshi-Zahav over the financial improprieties several years ago but closed it in 2013 due to “lack of public interest.”

However, Channel 13 found that even after the police probe, groups pretending to be ZAKA continued to fundraise in the group’s name, as recently as 2019.

The incidents came when ZAKA and Meshi Zahav were facing bankruptcy proceedings, even though Meshi-Zahav continued to live a lavish lifestyle in 5-star hotels and a multi-million dollar villa, the report said.

Meshi-Zahav and other ZAKA officials denied all the allegations.

The report said that just like the sexual abuse allegations, reports of financial impropriety also dated back many years, including one complaint sent to police by a volunteer from 2006.

The recent sexual allegations against Meshi-Zahav have been made by both men and women, some of whom were minors at the time of the alleged events.

Of the six allegations reported in the story, the earliest is from 1983, and the latest from 2011. The Haaretz report added that many residents of several ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in Jerusalem knew of Meshi-Zahav’s actions, but did not say anything or report him to authorities.

ZAKA is a major part of Israel’s emergency response services at home and abroad.

Earlier this month, Meshi-Zahav was declared a winner of the Israel Prize’s lifetime achievement award for his contributions to Israeli society.

Education Minister Yoav Gallant announced that the prestigious prize would go to Meshi-Zahav for his decades of work in ZAKA. In 2003, he lit a torch at Israel’s national Independence Day celebrations.

On Friday, Meshi-Zahav announced that he was stepping down from his role in ZAKA and also giving up the Israel Prize.

He was a vocal critic of some of the ultra-Orthodox leadership during the pandemic, as some prominent community figures downplayed the virus, including in an October interview with The Times of Israel.

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