(JTA) — Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, one of Israel’s best-known rabbis and founder of the Zaka emergency response organization, has been accused of sexually assaulting minors.
The allegations, which Meshi-Zahav has categorically denied, appeared in an expose published Thursday by Haaretz.
The most recent incident occurred in 2011, according the alleged victim, a young woman from haredi Orthodox circles.
“He forcibly undressed me,” the woman, who was not named, was quoted as telling Haaretz. He then “forced himself” on her and threatened that a Zaka squad car would run her over if she told anyone, she said.
Meshi-Zahav, 61, who this month was named the laureate of the Israel Prize, Israel’s highest civilian distinction, for his work to build bridges between secular and religious Israelis, told Haaretz that their expose on him “included vague, anonymous claims that go back decades. Let me say immediately that they are baseless.”
On Friday, hours after police announced they were opening an investigation of the claims, Meshi-Zahav announced that he was declining the Israel Prize and taking a leave of absence from Zaka.
Another complainant interviewed by Haaretz was a 16-year-old haredi boy in the 1990s when he said Meshi-Zahav molested him in Jerusalem.
The alleged abuse was spread over four years, during which the complainant said he became a “prostitute in the full sense of the word.” Meshi-Zahav “would arrive and do with me as he pleased” in a room at the complainant’s former high school, he told Haaretz.
“We did everything, but there was no penetration,” the complainant said. “He tried a few times and I refused.”
Police suspected Meshi-Zahav of sex crimes against 16-year-olds in 2013, but the investigation was closed without an indictment. No police complaint has been field against Meshi-Zahav.
The Haaretz expose included additional accounts of alleged groping and alleged extortion of sexual favors from minors by Meshi-Zahav from the 1980s onward, including interviews with three alleged victims.
Meshi-Zahav has denied them all, saying the accounts are the result of attempts at score-settling by his rivals and enemies.