"ANTISEMITISM is hatred of Jews as Jews, it is not criticism of Israel."

This line, which is spoken early in the Edinburgh Fringe play Soldiers of Tomorrow, should be emblazoned on the walls of 10 Downing Street, the office of Labour leader Keir Starmer and the headquarters of every newspaper in the UK.

It has become routine in the countries of the UK for supporters of Palestinian rights, including many Jews, to be slandered as anti-Jewish racists. That view is firmly rejected by playwright and performer Itai Erdal.

A former conscript in the Israeli army, Erdal performs Soldiers of Tomorrow at the Summerhall venue until August 27. The show takes its title from an event in the young life of Erdal’s nephew in Israel.

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The boy came home from school one day with a box which he was encouraged to fill with treats, such as chocolate bars, to be distributed to members of the Israeli military. The box carried the inscription: “To the soldiers of today from the soldiers of tomorrow.”

Erdal, who left Israel in 1999, now lives in Vancouver, Canada. He is joined on-stage by his friend, the excellent Syrian musician Emad Armoush.

The play is rooted in the playwright’s own military experience. In particular, it reflects on an incident that occurred at an Israeli checkpoint between the West Bank and Israel.

An elderly Palestinian woman carrying a very sick infant was held up while Israeli soldiers ran a check on her ID. The ensuing delays prompted arguments among the soldiers themselves, and put the baby’s health at ever-increasing risk. To this day, Erdal doesn’t know if the child survived.

Erdal performs on an abstract set that evokes the land of Palestine. His storytelling is supplemented by a variety of devices, including a series of toy soldier figures of varying sizes.

In one particularly poignant moment, a small box becomes a little puppet theatre on which small figures are used to play out the checkpoint scene. “I can’t take credit for that”, Erdal insists, when I meet him at Summerhall.

“That’s down to my director Anita Rochon, who is absolutely brilliant.” Erdal, who is a theatre lighting designer by profession, relies on Rochon to bring a dramaturgical eye to his work.

For all its seeming simplicity, the show bristles with theatrical ingenuity and moral truth. Having left Israel in disgust at the Occupation, Erdal says his experience as an émigré has strengthened his convictions.

“When you are removed from the situation, you can see it a lot more clearly”, he comments. He looks at the current coalition government of Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu (which includes the religious far-right and admirers of the late Israeli fascist leader Meir Kahane) with despair.

“The situation has got progressively worse since I left. When I was a kid, it seemed like half the country wanted peace, and half didn’t, and nobody could form a government.

“Now, people like me are considered extreme and radical. I haven’t changed, the country has moved to the right.

“When I lived in Israel, being a racist was a shameful thing that no-one would admit to. Today, people are proudly saying that they’re racist.

The National: Itai Erdal performing in the new workItai Erdal performing in the new work (Image: Matt Reznek)

“It seems to me like a country that has lost its moral compass.” That loss of moral bearings is nowhere clearer, Erdal says, than in the appointment as a government minister of Itamar Ben-Gvir, a renowned fascist who praises Kahane and describes the racist mass murderer Baruch Goldstein as a “hero”.

“They wouldn’t let Ben-Gvir be a soldier because he was too much of an extremist. Now he is the Minister of National Security in charge of the police. It is just appalling what is happening.”

The further to the right Israel shifts as a society, the more Erdal feels compelled to speak out. Needless to say, this stance has brought him criticism.

“I’m very used to being attacked on this topic”, he says. “But I’m also very good at talking about it, because I know more about it than the people who attack me.”

Much opinion in the West regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict is ill-informed and motivated by Islamophobia, the dramatist believes. He laughs when some Israelis, when they hear that he’s making another show about the Arab-Israeli conflict, write to him demanding that the show be “balanced” between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli perspectives.

“Reality isn’t balanced”, he says, referring to the immense gulf in power between the State of Israel and the Palestinians. “Why should I be ‘balanced’?

“One side has everything, and the other side has nothing. About 22 Palestinians die in this conflict for every one Israeli.”

Erdal’s fearlessness on this subject even extends to broaching a taboo subject in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict, namely, the Nazi Holocaust. “It is important for me to mention the Holocaust”, he says.

“It’s like the elephant in the room… That’s why the Palestinian woman in my play says [to an Israeli army officer], ‘we are always paying for what the Nazis did to you’.”

The playwright notes that many supporters of Israel scream in indignation if anyone compares any aspect of Israel’s Occupation with actions the Nazis took against European Jews. Yet, he says, the Israeli right has invoked the Holocaust for its own rhetorical purposes for decades.

For example, he remembers, after Israel’s Labor prime minister Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo Accords with PLO leader Yasser Arafat in 1993, the Israeli right “would put up huge billboards of Rabin with an SS uniform”.

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Such vituperative political hatred led to Rabin’s assassination by a right-wing, Jewish extremist in 1995. “That”, Erdal remembers, “was when I lost my hope”.

Now, he says, “I feel very strongly that I have a duty, as somebody who oppressed Palestinians, to tell people what’s happening in Palestine.

“I’m a theatre-maker, this is my way of spreading the word. This is as close to activism as I can get.”

Soldiers of Tomorrow is at Summerhall until August 27 and more information can be found HERE.