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‘I criticise Israel because I love it, not because I hate it’

When Itai Erdal was 18 he joined the Israeli army, like his father before him. His play Soldiers of Tomorrow sees him try to reckon with his time as an “oppressor”.

Itai Erdal in new play Soldiers of Tomorrow

Itai Erdal in Soldiers of Tomorrow. Photo: Matt Reznek

I grew up in Israel where military service is compulsory. I knew I was going to be a soldier from infancy – my father was a soldier, my cousin was a soldier, but I was hesitant to enlist. I always objected to the way my country treated Palestinians and I didn’t want to be a part of the Occupation. You see, I am from Jerusalem which is a mixed city. My parents had Palestinian friends, so the Arab-Israeli conflict was personal for me. It wasn’t just people on TV throwing stones and burning tyres, it was people from my neighbourhood.

To get out of military service I thought about faking a mental condition, but my Mom talked me out of it. She said that if I live in this country then I have to do my share. She said that if people like me didn’t serve we’d be leaving the military to the right-wing fanatics and if I enlist, I could be kind to people. But I realised that being kind to Palestinians at a checkpoint doesn’t mean anything because I am still their oppressor.

Itai Erdal standing on stage in his play about being in the Israel army

I carry the Arab-Israeli conflict with me at all times. The Occupation of Palestine occupies me. I must talk about it because it haunts me. I am aware that the topic is intimidating. It’s overwhelming to explain and overwhelming for people to hear. I’ve also seen people twist themselves into pretzels in order to not take sides because they were very concerned about appearing anti-Semitic. But anti-Semitism is the hatred of Jews only for being Jewish, it is not the criticism of Israel. I am a proud Jew. My entire family lives in Israel. I criticise Israel because I love it, not because I hate it.

In the last 75 years, the situation of the Palestinians has become much worse. It never gets better. Israel recently elected the most right-wing government in its history so unfortunately the future looks bleak. There is so much disinformation about this conflict, and so many people don’t really understand it that they’re terrified to take sides. I wanted to create a play that would make it acceptable for people to take sides – why? Because this is not a fair fight. For every Israeli who dies there are roughly 21 Palestinian deaths, half of them children.

My parents moved to Israel because of anti-Semitism in their homelands. My father talks about coming to Jerusalem from Istanbul in 1963 and seeing the Hebrew University, founded by Albert Einstein, with thousands of Jewish students, and feeling proud to be Jewish for the first time. He saw that millions of Jews from all over the world moved to the middle of the desert, to a tiny country, surrounded by enemies… and against all odds, they created the only Jewish state in the world – a safe haven where Jews will always be welcome, and will always be the majority.

The Arabs have 22 countries – we only have one. Except our Jewish country is full of Arabs who we continually displace. But since this is the only Jewish country – we must keep it that way. If we let non-Jews vote they might vote us out. You see, we have a conundrum: we know what it’s like to be discriminated against, but we created a country that discriminates against others. So we made up a story to quiet our conscience, and it goes like this: God gave us this land because we are the ‘Chosen People’. It says so in the Bible. And when the land was divided, the Arabs attacked us. We prevailed and they all ran away, so we took their homes.

They say history is written by the winners – and winners only tell of their palatable triumphs. But the children of the massacred are still there, they are only a few kilometres away, and they won’t let this go. So we tell ourselves that they are anti-Semites, that they are Fundamentalists, that you can’t reason with people like that.

When my nephew Ido was eight, he came home from school one day with an empty box he had to fill with stuff to send to the soldiers on the front line. Inside the box his teacher wrote: to the soldiers of today from the soldiers of tomorrow. My sister was the only parent to complain – most Israelis accept that their children will be soldiers and will take part in the endless Arab-Israeli conflict.

Ido was 17 when I started writing Soldiers of Tomorrow. At 18 you join the army. I’ve spent hours on the phone with Ido trying to convince him not to enlist. This play is the result of those conversations and the conflicted emotions that welled up in me as I confronted my own actions as a soldier in the Israeli Defence Force.

Soldiers of Tomorrow is co-written and performed by Itai Erdal and will be at the Edinburgh Fringe 2023, Summerhall (Old Lab), 2-27 Aug (not 14, 21), 2.50pm, £10-£15, edfringe.com

Read our Edinburgh Fringe coverage here.

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