Anyone who has viewed footage of a suicide attack in Israel will have seen bizarre bearded men busily working at the center of the gruesome site. At a certain moment they turn their fluorescent safety vests inside out. Previously the orange side, emblazoned “medic” was on display. The reversed side is yellow and bears the word “Zaka”, a Hebrew acronym that stands for Identifying Disaster Victims.
Notes by Prof. Gideon Aran
Zaka is an organization of Jewish Ultra-Orthodox (haredi) volunteers that has gained a monopoly on managing the deaths of victims of terrorism in Israel. It operates a network of a few hundred well-trainee and well-equipped personnel throughout the country. These men can arrive at any terrorism site rapidly, offer first aid, and then turn to their central task—carrying for the bodies of the dead in strict obedience to Jewish religious (halakhic) ritual norms and in keeping with traditional Jewish respect for the dead.
At the site of the attack they evacuate the bodies, collect severed limbs and organs, assign them to their bodies, mark the pieces, and pack them up. They search out and scrape up small pieces of flesh and tissue, soak up every drop of blood they can. Their purpose is both to identify the bodies and to ensure that all are buried in accordance with rabbinic Jewish law.
During the Al Aqsa Intifada (2000-2006) I joined Zaka to become a participant-observer in the Suicide Terrorism scene. In the course of my extensive field-study of Suicide Terrorism, Zaka proved to be not only an ingenious and indispensible methodological medium by which I could investigate the Suicide Terrorism arena from close range in real time, but also an organic part of the arena that plays an active key role in the Middle Eastern Suicide Terrorism scene. Furthermore, Zake happened to be a clever, sensitive and original interpreter of Suicide Terrorism.
Zaka is an interesting and significant topic in and of itself. However, despite the fact that it plays a major role in this book and although at times it seems to occupy the entire stage and to dominate the logic of my argumentation, the reader should remember that Zaka is but a vehicle to better understand another – closely related – phenomenon, that is, suicide bombing. The center of gravity of this book lies at the core of suicide bombing while Zaka is just a mirror, a peculiarly essential (and often inverted) reflection of and about suicide bombing.
Gideon Aran is a professor of sociology and anthropology at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem