Zaka’s tragic task

One group of strictly Orthodox volunteers became a familiar sight during the bloody second Intifada. Anshel Pfeffer meets the anti-Zionist radical who turned to a mission of rescue and recovery

Many in the strictly Orthodox community view Yehuda Meshi-Zahav as a renegade. For 30 years he was the main organiser of the battles with the police in the Jerusalem enclave of Mea Shearim. Any reason was good enough for a holy war: opening a cinema on Shabbat, autopsies that “desecrated” bodies, the launch of a sex shop or archaeologists digging up burial sites.

But in the mid 1990s, he began to find a different way of using his energies. The suicide bombings that rocked Israel created a role that no government agency was prepared for: collecting the remains of the victims for burial according to halachah. A small band of ultra-observant men filled this vacuum, arriving on the scene to hunt for every bit of human tissue. Meshi-Zahav joined this group and quickly took it over, transforming it into Zaka.

“I felt that I should be using my energies to bring people’s hearts together,” says Meshi-Zahav now. “This was also an opportunity to bring a group that was not giving anything to society and make it part of the circle.”

He believes that Zaka has changed how secular Israelis view the Orthodox — and vice versa.

“When people see a group they’re not used to seeing, taking part and doing the most difficult tasks of all, it widens the consensus. And also on our side, receiving this kind of recognition changed something. On a personal level, I felt that I was atoning for all I did to promote hatred between different parts of the nation.”

As well as the recovery of bodies, Zaka volunteers also train in first-aid. “We also take care of bodies of lonely people who died weeks ago,” says Meshi-Zahav. “I’d like to see anyone else removing a decomposed corpse.”

He sees himself as belonging to a new, more open generation. “When I was young, there were endless arguments over cooperating with the Zionists, but today’s generation was born into the reality of the state and many of them want to contribute. There’s also a growing recognition that not everybody can sit in yeshivah and learn all day. There’s plans now for forming units, under the auspices of the IDF Home Command, of thousands of Charedi men who will be trained for rescue missions in case of missile attacks or earthquake.”

Meshi Zahav believes that this will be another way to deal with the biggest issue mainstream Israelis have with the strictly Orthodox — that its sons do no army service.

Three years ago came the ultimate recognition, when Meshi Zahav was honoured with lighting a torch at the Independence Day ceremony on Mount Herzl — right beside the tomb of the father of modern Zionism, which 30 years earlier he had defaced with anti-Zionist graffiti.

Last updated: 3:01pm, March 2 2009