Terror, aid and organization: The haredi disaster victim identification teams (ZAKA) in Israel

Nurit Stadler*, Eyal Ben-Ari, Einat Mesterman

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

22 Scopus citations


Terror attacks are forms of social and cultural disasters that cause extensive harm to humans and the social order. Yet despite the sudden chaos they wreak and their prevalence during the last decade or so, most societies have only recently created organizational forms that can manage and handle their threatening potential. This article analyzes the relations between terror attacks and the emergence of new organizations specializing in death and disaster. We explore this issue through the case of ZAKA, the Ultra-Orthodox Identification Teams for Victims of Disasters in Israel. This organization sheds light on how in highly complex and bureaucratized countries new types of specialists in death by terror developed. From an anthropological point of view, organizational specialists in death by terror are expected to act proficiently on the basis of existing cultural norms and principles. Such organizational bodies are not only expressions of social responses to the unexpected disorder produced by terror but are also powerful cultural agents that produce new meanings. Concretely, not all organizations gain trust and support from the general public to allow its members to touch, treat and recompose the bodies of the dead, we contend that ZAKA legitimizes its goals and actions through the amalgamation of three unique elements: (a) Given that ZAKA's practices are grounded in Jewish traditions concerning death and burial, the organization use these cultural roots to gain acceptance of treating victims of terror attacks. In this way, the actions of ZAKA volunteers are legitimized since they fulfill central religious (Talmudic) duties concerning death and the treatment of corpses, (b) The organization mixes practices and knowledge from different institutions and bodies such as the police, military or medical organizations. Moreover, ZAKA cooperates with various state organizations that specialize in death events and disasters. This combination not only reinforces the legitimacy of their actions but turns them into social experts for dealing with the victims of terror and mass death. (c) During a terror event the organization deals not only with death but also with aid to, and treatment of, the injured. By giving them social permission to treat, touch and recompose the human flesh, society also sanctions them to touch the very basis of social order: treating the human body and dealing with questions of life and death in the public sphere. We end by offering a number of thoughts about the wider implications of our case study.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)619-651
Number of pages33
JournalAnthropological Quarterly
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2005


  • Haredi
  • Israel
  • Religion
  • Terror
  • Terrorism
  • Violence
  • ZAKA


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