Meshi-Zahav: From Outcast to Hero?

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When I lived in Israel, Yehuda Meshi-Zahav was often in the news — and never on the “right” side of the editorials. He was quoted as a spokesman for “ultra-Orthodox” demonstrators, protesting this or that government abuse of religious sensitivities and/or the religious in general.

This was at a time when the press had little patience for his views. I remember one evening when (as I saw personally) police violently assaulted innocent spectators of a demonstration. The next morning’s Jerusalem Post even carried a photograph of a yeshiva bochur with blood trickling down his face — he had, according to observers, come out only to call his younger brother indoors, but was set upon. That he was a victim of police brutality, though, appeared nowhere in the accompanying article. Rather, police were quoted as saying that they had acted with “maximal restraint“, and neither the writer nor any quoted source questioned this excerpt from Orwell. It was not a good time to be an Orthodox spokesman… but Meshi-Zahav took the challenge.

My, but how times have changed.

In 1989, Meshi-Zahav co-founded ZAKA, an all-volunteer organization of men trained to rescue victims of terrorism and collect body parts and blood for proper burial. Again and again they were photographed in the midst of horrific scenes in the aftermath of suicide bombings, offering solace to those who survived and chesed shel emes, true kindness, to those who had not. Whether or not the victims were observant or Jewish made no difference, and Zaka even went to the hardest-hit areas after last summer’s disastrous Tsunami, where their dedication was so well-regarded that they were called “the team that sleeps with the dead.”

Today Meshi-Zahav is respected even more than he was once pilloried. How do we know? Because he is one of the select individuals invited to join Ariel Sharon’s nascent Kadimah political party — reflecting the belief of Sharon’s strategists that Meshi-Zahav will bring not only respect, but votes.

These are not likely to be charedi votes, either. In response to my earlier entry on the elections, ‘MMBBHK’ commented that “the post takes it for granted that the Torah-observant should vote UTJ.” That’s not quite correct; I (and the UTJ strategists) take it for granted that the charedi community will vote UTJ. Meshi-Zahav is unlikely to draw many votes from Bnei Brak or Kiryat Mattersdorf. Rather, he has become a symbol of self-sacrifice and integrity (even though Zaka is apparently now in receivership).

With all of that said, the most interesting element of this story may be not how others view Meshi-Zahav, but how he views himself. His family comes from Me’ah Sheaim, one of Jerusalem’s oldest (and least Zionistic) neighborhoods. Yet recently, on Israel’s 55th Independence Day, Meshi-Zahav was given the honor of lighting a beacon on Mount Herzl — and he accepted, to the consternation of many in his family. He now, according to the Jerusalem Post, feels it important that he “be involved” in Israeli society, but he hasn’t yet decided whether to accept Kadimah’s invitation.

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6 Responses

  1. erin says:

    One reason may be the fact that until recently they did not have a web site to get donation from American donors. Their main web site could accept only donation from Israelis.

  2. Yisrael Moshe says:

    Can anyone tell us why ZAKA has gone into bankruptcy? Has there been a misappropriation of funds? I concur with the first commenter on this thread, and strongly encourage the writers and readers of cross-currents to research into this development so that we can be certain that ZAKA and its leaders are worthy of such praise.

  3. Eliezer Barzilai says:

    Rabbi Homnick’s definitional tautology is manipulative and unfair. If one defines ‘chareidi’ as ‘one who is religious and refuses to join the army, then there is something inherently selfish about the chareidim. In truth, however, one can be chareidi and join the army. Many religious people in Israel do join the army, not even counting the Gerers. Among the religious, there are indeed many who refuse to do so. Their reasons range from fear of putting ones’ self at the mercy of an organization with a burning antipathy to religion of any kind, to theological reasons involving the legitimacy of the government. These concerns have been enunciated by many sincere religious leaders, and are not diminished by their abuse by a few.

  4. Yaakov D. Homnick says:

    Meshi-Zahav and ZAKA represent Orthodox Judaism at its best. Not only in its most sympathetic visage, but in its true best essence.

    Say what you will about the importance of learning Torah; say what you will about the self-sacrifice inherent in that commitment; say what you will about about the role of Torah study in spiritually abetting the work of the soldier. This fact remains, and it is a fact, not a judgment. The Chareidi Jews in Israel have made a corporate – alebit unspoken – decision not to risk their lives and the lives of their children on behalf of protecting the Jews of Israel. Or phrased differently: they have made a decision to shift the risk of that protection to those who are not Chareidi. Full stop: no one can talk their way around this point. (I say this as a Chareidi who lived in Israel for ten years: it hurts to say it, indicting myself no less than others. But truth is not subject to embellishment or wish fulfillment.)

    The message of ZAKA – equally unspoken – is this: we must take a piece of that risk. If it can be done in an area of enhancing mitzvah performance and teaching proper respect for life (and the dead), then we are maximizing our performance as servants of Hashem in a unique historical time where He is engaged in fulfilling the final prophecies.

  5. Yaakov Menken says:

    I actually just edited the post to point out that Zaka is in receivership. This post isn’t a value judgement, I just find the social phenomenon very interesting — that they would be signing up this charedi mit gartel un bekeshe, especially one who was once denigrated on a regular basis (so that’s two strikes against him), to burnish Kadimah’s image.

  6. ben meir says:

    ARe you aware that Zaka has declared bankruptcy, I would be awfully cautious about calling Meshi Zahav a hero right now.