Seven National Football League players are due to arrive in Israel Monday night for a post-Super Bowl trip, after four fellow athletes pulled out of the tour, three of them having expressed discomfort with the expressed goals of the Israeli government-sponsored trip.
There were no last-minute participants added to the week-long trip.
“The delegation is on its way to Israel, expected to land tonight,” said Revital Yakin-Karkovsky, executive director for communications and strategy in the Ministry for Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy, which is handling the NFL visit. “They’ll begin their tour of Israel tomorrow.”
The withdrawals from the trip were led by Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett, who pulled out saying he felt he was being “used” by the Israeli government.
Bennett’s public exit was followed by that of Miami Dolphins wide receiver Kenny Stills and then reportedly by his younger brother, Martellus Bennett, of the New England Patriots.
Denver Broncos running back Justin Forsett said he would nix the trip as well, and then later indicated that he and his wife had decided against it some weeks ago, because of the upcoming birth of his child.
“It’s very common for star athletes and celebrities to decide at the last minute if they’re coming on a trip like this,” said a local public relations professional who often works on celebrity delegations.
The players set to arrive are Seattle Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril, tight end Delanie Walker of the Tennessee Titans, Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Michael Kendricks, New Orleans Saints’ defensive end Cameron Jordan, defensive end Calais Campbell of the Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers running back Carlos Hyde, and Oakland Raiders defensive tackle Dan Williams. ESPN football commentator and former NFL linebacker Kirk Morrison is also set to join.
The NFL athletes’ trip is planned to last seven days, with stops in Tel Aviv, the Dead Sea and Haifa, as well as Christian sites in the Galilee. However, an announced exhibition game featuring the players in Jerusalem will not take place.
The holy land trip was planned by the Ministry for Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy in cooperation with the Tourism Ministry and America’s Voices in Israel, an initiative of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, a nonpartisan group.
Bennett pulled out after reading comments about the trip made by Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan and Tourism Minister Yariv Levin in a press release published by the Tourism Ministry on February 5, Super Bowl Sunday.
In the statement, Erdan expressed hope 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.”
Part of the fight against the delegitimization and BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanction) campaigns against Israel “includes hosting influencers and opinion-formers of international standing in different fields, including sport,” Erdan said.
Tourism Minister Levin echoed the sentiment: “Football stars are a source of inspiration for all American citizens. I am sure that, after the experiences that the players will enjoy in Israel and after they have seen the unique tourist sites and the special atmosphere here, they will become ambassadors of good will for Israel,” Levin said.
Registering his refusal to participate, Bennett first tweeted a picture of Martin Luther King Jr., saying “Im not going to Israel.” He then followed it with a long letter late Friday explaining his motivation.
Im not going to Israel pic.twitter.com/KWzA0nCiFb
— Michael Bennett (@mosesbread72) February 10, 2017
“I was excited to see this remarkable and historic part of the world with my own eyes. 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.’”
— Michael Bennett (@mosesbread72) February 11, 2017
“I will not be used in such a manner,” Bennett said. “When I go to Israel — and I do plan to go — it will be to see not only Israel but also 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.”
Levin accused the players of caving to pressure from the BDS (Boycott Divestment Sanctions) movement. An open letter signed by pro-Palestinian groups, activists and high-profile supporters including Harry Belafonte, Danny Glover and Alice Walker had urged the athletes not to go.
“These trips bringing celebrities to Israel are part of a larger ‘Brand Israel’ campaign to help the Israeli government normalize and whitewash its ongoing denial of Palestinian rights,” the letter declared.
— Danny Glover (@mrdannyglover) February 11, 2017
Some of the players who hadn’t spoken out publicly about the planned trip received significant pressure on Twitter and other social media, as BDS supporters urged them not to support the apartheid government of Israel and not to take part in propaganda trips.
— Victoria (@nothingisthis) February 9, 2017
There were other mistakes in the Levin-Erdan press release that may have annoyed the players, said Steve Leibowitz, president and founder of the American Football League in Israel.
One glaring error was the promise that the NFL players would play an exhibition game in Israel, he said. The press release enthused: “The players will also hold an exhibition match in Jerusalem with the Israeli Football team on Saturday evening (February 18).” It added: “Fans are invited!”
“They’re not allowed to play a game here,” said Leibowitz. “Nobody asked them to. I’ve had enough missions of football players here to know that the most they’ll do is throw the first pass.”
Leibowitz said he had been contacted by Israeli government officials and asked if he would be willing to host the players, specifically in Jerusalem, on Saturday night, February 18.
With two American Football League in Israel games taking place that evening in the Jerusalem area, including a playoff game at Jerusalem’s Kraft Stadium — the outdoor football field built by New England Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft — Leibowitz responded that he would be thrilled to host the NFL players.
When the press release went out reporting an exhibition game that evening, his association’s 2,000 players began contacting Leibowitz, wanting more details about the planned game.
“So we stared denying it and letting the ministry know there would be no exhibition game,” said Leibowitz.
Irwin Katsof, who runs American’s Voices in Israel, declined to comment when asked about the changes in the upcoming NFL trip.
America’s Voices runs several trips a year, usually bringing celebrities, actors and opinion-makers to Israel, in an effort to expose them to the positive aspects of the country, its sites and history.
Leibowitz mentioned that, last year, he hosted 19 members of the Professional Football Hall of Fame who were invited by New England Patriots owner Kraft.
“All we did was a meet and greet,” he said.
Martellus Bennett’s objection to the Israel trip followed criticism of US President Donald Trump. A number of Patriots players have said they will not go to the White House for the traditional visit by the Super Bowl champion team in protest of the president’s policies, despite owner Robert Kraft’s support for him.
Kraft, the sponsor of Jerusalem’s Kraft Stadium, the outdoor football field used by the American Football League in Israel, recently announced a $6 million donation to build another football field outside Jerusalem, near Mevasseret Zion.
Breitbart News, the right-wing news site that was chaired by Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, conjectured that Martellus Bennett, whose New England Patriots contract recently expired, would not be rehired after disrespecting Kraft with regard to Trump and Israel.
According to CBS Boston, free agent Bennett was offered a contract extension back in December, before his team won Super Bowl LI, but he turned down the offer.
Off the field, both Bennett brothers are politically active, tweeting frequently about the “Black Lives Matter” movement and African-American history.
Martellus Bennett is also an aspiring children’s book writer with a company, the Imagination Agency, that produces short films and children’s books. Married, with one young daughter, he tweets often about the importance of reading books and dreaming big.