The triple tragedy that struck the family of one of Israel’s most righteous Jews in the course of a single month is garnering nationwide attention and sympathy. That COVID-19 caused the deaths of Yehuda Meshi Zahav’s mother and father, shortly after that of his brother, made the blow particularly relevant to the general public.
But it is Meshi Zahav’s response to his personal loss—and accompanying appeal to those members of the country’s haredi communities who are engaged in a battle against the state over its coronavirus regulations—that is most noteworthy. So distraught is he about both that he gave an interview to Channel 12 on Sunday evening, a day after his father passed away, in the midst of his sitting shiva for his mother, mere weeks after his younger brother’s funeral.
Meshi Zahav is the founder and head of the volunteer rescue and recovery organization ZAKA (the Hebrew acronym for Disaster Victim Identification). Established in 1995, ZAKA became famous in Israel for its painstaking gathering of human remains, tissue and blood from scenes of terrorist attacks to enable the identification and proper, dignified burial of dead bodies in accordance with Jewish law. ZAKA also collects the remains of non-Jews, including suicide bombers, for return to their families.
It’s the kind of gruesome work that few people are cut out for, but all consider an awe-inspiring, if not a holy, endeavor. What makes it even more extraordinary is the fact that Meshi Zahav not only hails from the extremist Eda Haredit sect in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood, but until the late 1980s, was a rabid anti-Zionist activist protesting against the secular state’s every policy and pursuit, including archaeological excavations.
Indeed, it wasn’t until 1989, at the age of 30, that he gradually underwent a shift in perception. The turning point—and event that would eventually lead to the creation of ZAKA—was the Palestinian Islamic Jihad attack on an inter-city Tel Aviv-Jerusalem bus. Sixteen people were killed, including two Canadians and one American, and 27 others were wounded when a terrorist grabbed the steering wheel from the driver, forcing the vehicle over a steep embankment into a ravine, where it caught on fire.
At the time, Meshi Zahav was studying at the nearby Telz-Stone yeshivah. Hearing the screams of the victims (some of whom ended up being burned alive), he and a number of his fellow students rushed to the scene to help. This experience, as well as subsequent suicide bombings and other types of Palestinian attacks on Israelis, sparked a change in his thinking about Jewish unity and pluralism within Israeli society.
His shift was so great that today the 61-year-old openly calls for haredim to serve in the Israel Defense Forces; in fact, two of his sons are combat soldiers. This runs counter to the behavior and attitude of many haredi sects, whose members believe that Torah study protects the Jews—in and out of Israel—just as much, if not more, than paratroopers and commandos.
Perhaps an even greater societal divide was revealed when the coronavirus pandemic erupted. As I wrote in June, the minute that Israelis started getting infected with and dying from the virus, the haredim became the target of derision for spreading the disease.
Rather than examining and trying to empathize with the key reasons for the high rate of infection among the ultra-Orthodox—such as the large size of nuclear families living in cramped quarters, and a lack of access to news via TV and the Internet—the public turned on them as the perfect scapegoat for its frustration and health anxiety.
Even when the massive education campaign in haredi-majority areas proved successful—with the added benefit of bringing IDF troops and black hats together in a touching show of mutual kindness—the media played up every violation displayed by the disobedient minority.
Nor was this enmity restricted to secular Israelis. The national-religious community has been equally angry at the haredim for flouting the rules. Ironically, secular Israelis rarely can distinguish between one group of “ultra-Orthodox” and another, treating them as a homogenous bunch, which they are not.
As a result, this week’s shameful riots in Bnei Brak and elsewhere—during which haredim objecting to the state’s attempt to enforce the closure of Talmud Torah schools during the country’s current COVID-19 lockdown clashed violently with police—are being attributed to the entire ultra-Orthodox population. One reason for this is the lack of a clear, uniform voice from haredi leaders about the dangers of the virus and the importance of adhering to rules aimed at saving lives. It’s the highest Jewish tenet, after all.
This is precisely the message that Meshi Zahav has been conveying.
“I feel like I’m in a horror movie,” he told Channel 12, saying that words can’t express the torture of losing three loved ones to the virus, practically all at once.
He went on to criticize members of his community for wasting their time complaining about being discriminated against and pointing fingers at demonstrators outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem and beachgoers in Tel Aviv.
“People are dropping like flies [in the haredi community], and this is what they’re harping on?” he bemoaned.
“I cannot understand the disregard for human life,” he went on. “It’s enough to pass through ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods and see the death notices going up, one after the other,” to grasp the gravity of the situation.
“In some respects, it reminds me of the Titanic,” he said, “with people getting killed [below deck], while someone on the upper deck is arguing over which waltz to play.”
Meshi Zahav’s real punch, however, came in the form of a lesson in Judaism for those of his fellow haredim who appear to be militantly ignoring the big picture.
“Every year during the counting of the Omer, we mourn the 24,000 thousand disciples of Rabbi Akiva, who died of the plague 2,000 years ago,” he said. “But we don’t need a 2,000-year-old custom to see what’s going on right now, with practically no household being spared death” from the current plague.
As a haredi Jew himself who has devoted his career to rescuing people at home and abroad, while honoring the remains of those who don’t survive, he deserves to be heeded. And as a man suffering a profound personal loss from a virus that doesn’t distinguish between those who pore over the Talmud and others who cram for math tests, he must be taken as seriously as any rabbi.
Ruthie Blum is an Israel-based journalist and author of “To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’ ”