One of the NFL’s best defensive players and his brother, a tight end for the world champion New England Patriots, were among the handful of pro football players who turned a planned trip to Israel this week into a diplomatic fumble for the Jewish state.
Of the 11 active NFL players slated to go on the post-Super Bowl trip, only five were among the contingent that landed in Israel on Feb. 13, including Dan Williams of the Oakland Raiders, according to the Times of Israel.
Carlos Hyde of the San Francisco 49ers was a no-show, according to the Times, but there were no reports, as of early Feb. 15, as to why he was not present.
Some of the players who were no-shows backed out of the trip for philosophical reasons, most notably All-Pro defensive end Michael Bennett of the Seattle Seahawks, who said he felt he was being “used” by the Israeli government.
The seven-day trip, which officially kicked off Feb. 14 with a visit to Rambam hospital in Haifa, is being sponsored by the Israeli government and America’s Voices in Israel, an initiative of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Bennett apparently pulled out after reading an article about the trip in the Times of Israel, which included statements by two Israeli Cabinet ministers saying the trip was intended to counter the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and the pro-Palestinian narrative about Israel.
Gilad Erdan, whose varied portfolio in Israel includes public security, strategic affairs and public diplomacy, said he hoped the visit would offer the players “a balanced picture of Israel, the opposite from the false incitement campaign that is being waged against Israel around the world.” Fighting BDS, he added, “includes hosting influencers and opinion-formers of international standing in different fields, including sport.”
Tourism Minister Yariv Levin hoped the players would come home with “positive stories about Israel” that would “counter distortions and misrepresentations about the Jewish state.”
On Feb. 10, Bennett tweeted that he was not going, complaining that “I was not aware, until reading this article about the trip in the Times of Israel, that my itinerary was being constructed by the Israeli government for the purposes of making me, in the words of a government official, an ‘influencer and opinion-former’ who would then be ‘an ambassador of good will.’ I will not be used in such a manner.”
— Michael Bennett (@mosesbread72) February 11, 2017
He pledged to come to Israel one day, and to visit the West Bank and Gaza, “so I can see how the Palestinians, who have called this land home for thousands of years, live their lives.”
Following Bennett’s stand, his brother Martellus Bennett, a tight end for the Patriots, also backed out, as did Denver Broncos running back Justin Forsett, who played college footbal at U.C. Berkeley, and Miami Dolphins wide receiver Kenny Stills.
Before posting his lengthy explanation as an image on Twitter, Michael Bennett posted a photo of Martin Luther King Jr. with the simple statement: “Im not going to Israel.”
Forsett retweeted Bennett’s letter with a post saying: “For those who are wondering I will not be on this trip to Israel.” He later tweeted that he and his wife had decided weeks ago not to go on the trip because she is now eight months pregnant.
Stills tweeted a link to Bennett’s tweet and added: “Couldn’t have said it any better. I’m in!”
The two Israeli governmental agencies who helped organize the trip — the Ministry for Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy in cooperation with the Tourism Ministry —announced the trip on Feb. 5, the day of the Super Bowl in Houston. The delegation was to feature 11 current NFL players and one former player.
When the tour began in Haifa a day after the delegation’s plane landed in Israel, according the Times of Israel, only five of the original 11 were in the delegation: Williams of the Raiders, Delanie Walker of the Tennessee Titans, Mychal Kendricks of the Philadelphia Eagles, Cameron Jordan of the New Orleans Saints and Calais Campbell of the Arizona Cardinals. The trip also was to include ESPN commentator and former NFL linebacker Kirk Morrison.
One of the original invitees, Cliff Avril of the Seattle Seahawks, apparently didn’t back out of the trip, but he tweeted on Feb. 14 that he had had surgery that morning, leading the Seattle Times to report, “Avril made no comment about his participation, but obviously having surgery indicates he also is not on the trip.”
On the trip, the players were to visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, Christian sites in the Galilee and the Black Hebrew community in the southern city of Dimona. Some of the players were expected to be baptized in the Jordan River.
An open letter to the delegation published Feb. 9 in The Nation and signed by organizations such as Bay Area-based Jewish Voice for Peace, and by author Alice Walker and actors Harry Belafonte and Danny Glover, called on the players to reconsider the trip, saying it is part of an effort to “help the Israeli government normalize and whitewash its ongoing denial of Palestinian rights.”
It’s not clear how much the players knew about the sponsors or the purposes of the trip before accepting. The America’s Voices in Israel Facebook page explains that it “organizes week-long missions to Israel for prominent headline-makers with widespread credibility,” in order to generate stories about Israel that “counter distortions and misrepresentations about the Jewish State.”
In Israel, the story is playing as a major gaffe on the part of Erdan and Levin. By making explicit the implicit purpose of the “mission,” they put the players in an untenable position. Haaretz ran the headline “In a major fumble for Israel, some NFL players cancel visit.”
According to the Times of Israel, there were additional mistakes in the statements by Levin and Erdan that may have upset the players, in the eyes of Steve Leibowitz, president and founder of the nonprofit American Football in Israel.
Notably, according to the Times, the press release said, “The players will also hold an exhibition match in Jerusalem with the Israeli Football team on [Saturday, Feb. 18] … Fans are invited!”
“They’re not allowed to play a game here,” Leibowitz told the Times.
Leibowitz also told the Times that last year he hosted 19 members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, who were invited to Israel by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who is not only Jewish but a strong supporter of American football in Israel.
Trips to Israel are not uncommon for pro athletes from North America. Several years ago, Israeli native Omri Casspi of the Sacramento Kings started bringing missions of his fellow NBA players to Israel to address what he sees as the “vexed image of Israel propagated by the American media,” as reported in the New Yorker.