25 December '15..
Meet Yoni Zarka: a 32-year-old new immigrant from France with a singular, passionate dream -- to defend the people of Israel by serving in the Israel Defense Forces.
Zarka wrote to the IDF as soon as he arrived in Israel in February. For three months, he called the army every day and sent letters. They told him they were considering his request. But in the end they told him he was too old to enlist in the IDF. The oldest age to enlist is 27. This was after he signed up for Tzedek Lochamim, an association of soldiers preparing for elite commando units such as Sayeret Matkal and the Shayetet 13 naval commandos, and took part in it for a month, where he was among the mere 10% of participants who completed the massive trek in the preparatory program. Zarka has twice completed Ironman triathlons -- 4-kilometer swim, 80-kilometer bicycle ride and 42 kilometers of running -- and is in better shape than the vast majority of 18-year-olds signing up for service.
Zarka's last resort has been to camp outside the IDF Induction Base at Tel Hashomer, outside Tel Aviv, braving the rain and cold and spending 11 nights sleeping on the pavement in his sleeping bag -- a dangerous endeavor in the current security situation. The soldiers at the base love him and have taken care of him like one of their own, sharing their food and beverages with him.
On Monday, he had the chance to present his case to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who promised to look into it and respond within a few weeks. Until then, he says he will not budge from his spot outside the base.
I asked him where he finds the strength to go on with his campaign. He almost laughed at my question.
"That is so very easy! I am a Zionist. All my strength comes from that -- only that. Zionism is inscribed upon my heart. If I give up on the army, it's as if I am giving up on Israel," he tells me.
"I once asked my mother why I was named Yoni. She took out a film, told me to sit down and watch it. After the film, I cried. The film was about the Entebbe operation, in which Yoni Netanyahu [the prime minister's brother] was killed while fighting to rescue the Jewish hostages."
Zarka is made of the same stuff that pulsed through the veins of the great men and women who built this country. He is dedicated, unflinching and with a heart brimming with love for his country and people. Physically, he is more than able to serve in the IDF. Not only should he be allowed to serve, he comes across as an ideal candidate. What more can the IDF ask for than a man who is so dedicated that he will sit through the cold and rain and sleep in the street for as long as it takes to be allowed to serve?
Exceptions have been made in the past to let immigrants aged over 30, and there is no reason why an exception can't be made for Zarka. It would be unfair not to let him serve. Israeli men serve in the reserves until they are 40 -- it seems that a 32-year-old should be able to serve as well. Zarka is even willing to volunteer and serve without pay.
We need more people like him in Israel, people with his dedication, courage and love of fellow Jews. The urge to serve others is a noble and rare sentiment, which should be encouraged and received with gratitude, not discarded with reference to bureaucratic rules. A refusal to accept Zarka sends all the wrong signals, whereas an acceptance would confirm all that is beautiful in the State of Israel.
Israelis from all walks of life have already embraced Yoni Zarka. Let the IDF come out and embrace him, too. Let Yoni serve.
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