At the 2020 annual Israeli Memorial Day ceremony at the Lone Soldier Center in Memory of Michael Levin, Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said,
We remember the courage and the self-sacrifice, the dedication and the bravery, of Israel’s lone soldiers. Especially those that gave their lives defending the State of Israel and the nation of Israel. We think of them as living examples of what it is to fight for the freedom of our people and their safety in the land of our beginnings. … These are among the great heroes of our people.
Israeli Staff Sgt. Omer Balva, may God avenge his death, was one such hero.
Omer was born to Israeli parents Eyal and Sigal in Rockville, Maryland. He attended the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, where he and his classmates received an excellent Zionist education. After graduating high school, Omer followed in the footsteps of his older sister Shahar, who served as commander of a K-9 unit in the IDF. He enlisted in the IDF as a lone soldier.
While in high school, Omer wrote about his dreams of joining the IDF. He said that he planned on moving to Israel and raising his family in the Jewish land. He wrote, “My passion has always been to protect Israel and suggest what is best for what I believe is the greatest country in the world.” Omer followed his dreams and, after his IDF service, registered to attend university at Reichman University in Herzliya, where he studied business and economics.
In October of this year, he returned to Rockville to spend vacation and the holidays with his family. On Oct. 7, Omer was in America when Palestinian terrorists ripped through Israel’s south, massacring over a thousand innocent Israelis. Omer’s infantry reserve unit was quickly called up. Although he was in America, Omer knew his place was with his fellow soldiers. He quickly booked a flight back to Israel.
Like many of the over 150,000 Israelis who returned to Israel when the war broke out, Omer knew there were supplies his unit would need that would be easier to find in America than in Israel. Omer and his friend Ethan Missner, a classmate at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, spent the night before Omer returned to Israel packing a large duffle bag for him to take to his unit.
That was the last time Ethan saw his friend. Soon after, Omer was killed by an anti-tank missile fired from Lebanon by the terrorist group Hezbollah. Instead of attending Reichman University in Herziliya, Omer was buried in Herziliya’s military cemetery. He will always be remembered by Zionists around the world as a hero of the Jewish people.
Unfortunately, a small group of Omer’s classmates didn’t see his death as the act of a hero. With a few other alumni of their high school, they compared Omer and his fellow soldiers to Nazis.
In a letter addressed to their community, they wrote,
We feel deeply to our core the indelible generational trauma of the Holocaust. Instead of approaching historical and current Jewish oppression as exceptional, however, we believe we must extend the lesson of “Never Again” to oppressed communities across the globe, and especially in this moment, to Palestinians undergoing a war fueled by genocidal intent. We understand the current war in Gaza not as an aberration, but as a continuation of Israel’s long and violent history of deliberate oppression and dispossession of the Palestinian people. We affirm that critique of Zionism and Israel is neither antisemitic nor a betrayal of Judaism or the Jewish community; rather, these profound critiques stem from our commitment to Jewish values.
Thus, instead of commemorating their classmate’s sacrifice for his nation and his people, a small minority of his classmates and alumni disgraced themselves.
In response to the letter, hundreds of Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School alumni wrote a letter reflecting their Zionist values and support for the Israeli people at a time of sorrow. They wrote,
It comes as a shock to many of us that our fellow alumni and Jews would stoop so low as to enthusiastically spread vicious blood libels about Israel, like calling it an apartheid state or characterizing the war in Gaza as fueled by “genocidal intent.” It is incumbent upon all of us to remember that these blood libels are used to fuel antisemitic attacks around the world and have directly led to the harassment, assault and even murder of innocent Jews in this country and elsewhere. As Jews and Zionists, we mourn the loss of our people and of all innocent civilians killed in armed conflict. But unlike some of our former classmates, we are clear on who is at fault: Hamas.
Their letter concluded,
We reaffirm our commitment to the State of Israel and to the true values of the CESJDS community. We affirm our love for Israel, our proud Zionism, our support for the IDF and our unrelenting fight against antisemitism and anti-Zionism in all forms, especially when it comes from those who claim to speak for us as Jews. The State of Israel is strong and will continue to fight for her survival. We will support and defend her existence just as she does for us.
One of those who signed the letter was Omer’s friend Ethan. In a Washington Post article about Omer, Ethan said of his friend, “He was such a loving person, he brought a lot of light to the world.” Sen. Ben Cardin, who attended the same high school as Omer, wrote that he was “heartbroken” at Omer’s death, saying Omer “answered the call in the fight against terrorism and gave the fullest measure of devotion to the State of Israel.”
One of the best-known Zionist poems is Natan Alterman’s “The Silver Platter.” It reads,
When across from it will step out a youth and a lass and slowly march toward the nation
Dressed in battle gear, dirty
Shoes heavy with grime, they ascend the path quietly
To change garb, to wipe their brow
They have not yet found time
Still bone weary from days and from nights in the field
Full of endless fatigue and unrested
Yet the dew of their youth
Is still seen on their head
Thus they stand at attention, giving no sign of life or death
Then a nation in tears and amazement will ask: “Who are you?”
And they will answer quietly,
“We are the silver platter on which the Jewish state was given”
Thus they will say and fall back in shadows
And the rest will be told
In the chronicles of Israel
Omer Balva will always be remembered as the Silver Platter.