11-strong NFL stars’ trip to Israel now down to seven
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Pro-Palestinian activists urge players not to help Israeli government 'whitewash its ongoing denial of Palestinian rights'

11-strong NFL stars’ trip to Israel now down to seven

Michael Bennett was first to quit Holy Land tour, saying he didn’t want to be ‘used,’ after tourism minister said he was sure players would become ‘good will ambassadors for Israel’

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett talks to reporters, in Renton, Wash (AP File Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett talks to reporters, in Renton, Wash (AP File Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

A post-Super Bowl trip to Israel by 11 National Football League players is now down to seven, following a series of withdrawals led by Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett, who pulled out because he said he felt he was being “used” by the Israeli government.

The original 11-member crew of athletes included players Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett from the Seattle Seahawks, Bennett’s younger brother and New England Patriots player Martellus Bennett, Delanie Walker of the Tennessee Titans, Philadelphia Eagles player Michael Kendricks, New Orleans Saints’ Cameron Jordan, Miami Dolphins’ Kenny Stills, Calais Campbell of the Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers player Carlos Hyde, Oakland Raiders’ Dan Williams, and Denver Broncos player Justin Forsett. ESPN football commentator and former NFL linebacker Kirk Morrison was also set to join.

The 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 non-partisan group.

But 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. In a statement published by the Tourism Ministry on the night of Super Bowl LI, February 5, 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.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, right, with Tourism Minister Yariv Levin as they arrive at the weekly cabinet meeting, Jerusalem, May 26, 2015. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL/FLASH90)
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, right, with Tourism Minister Yariv Levin as they arrive at the weekly cabinet meeting, Jerusalem, May 26, 2015. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL/FLASH90)

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.

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.

“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.’”

“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.”

After he published the letter, Miami Dolphins wide receiver Kenny Stills retweeted Bennett, saying “Couldn’t have said it any better. I’m in!”

Bennett’s brother Martellus, of the New England Patriots, has also reportedly pulled out of the trip.

On Saturday, Denver Broncos’s 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 indicated that he and his wife had decided against the trip some weeks ago because of the anticipated birth of their child.

When pressed on if he would have gone on the trip had his wife not been pregnant, he said: “Im really uninformed on the issues over there right now I’m doing my best now to get up to speed then I can make an informed dec[ision].”

Despite the pullouts, the visit was still going ahead as of Sunday night, with stops including Rambam hospital in Haifa, the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem and a meet with representatives of the Black Hebrews in Dimona.

Local public relations agents said the players may have pulled out of the trip because of pressures 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 urged the players 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.

Martellus Bennett #88 of the New England Patriots works out during a practice session ahead of Super Bowl LI on February 1, 2017 in Houston, Texas. (Bob Levey/Getty Images/AFP)
Martellus Bennett #88 of the New England Patriots works out during a practice session ahead of Super Bowl LI on February 1, 2017 in Houston, Texas. (Bob Levey/Getty Images/AFP)

Steve Leibowitz, president and founder of the American Football League in Israel, said that there were other mistakes in the Levin-Erdan press release that may have annoyed the players.

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.

Team owner of the New England Patriots Robert Kraft holds the Vince Lombardi Trophy during Super Bowl 51 at NRG Stadium on February 5, 2017 in Houston, Texas. Tom Pennington/Getty Images/AFP)
Team owner of the New England Patriots Robert Kraft holds the Vince Lombardi Trophy during Super Bowl 51 at NRG Stadium on February 5, 2017 in Houston, Texas. Tom Pennington/Getty Images/AFP)

With two games taking place that evening in the Jerusalem area, including a playoff game at Jerusalem’s Kraft Stadium — the outdoor football field created 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. “And I’ve been told that the Conference didn’t see the press release.”

Irwin Katsof, who runs American’s Voices in Israel, declined to comment when asked about the changes in the upcoming NFL trip.

The latest group of actors visiting Israel with America's Voices in Israel (Courtesy AVI)
Actors visiting Israel with America’s Voices in Israel, including members of the ‘Scandal’ cast (Courtesy AVI)

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.

The NFL athletes’ trip is planned to last seven days, with other stops in Tel Aviv, the Dead Sea and Haifa, as well as Christian sites in the Galilee.

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.

Pro Football Hall of Famers on a tour of Israel organized by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft watch a scrimmage at Kraft's Jerusalem stadium on June 21, 2015. (Ben Sales/JTA)
Pro Football Hall of Famers on a tour of Israel organized by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft watch a scrimmage at Kraft’s Jerusalem stadium on June 21, 2015. (Ben Sales/JTA)

One of the newer organizations involved in bringing celebrities to Israel is headed by NBA Sacramento Kings basketball player Omri Casspi, who has brought two missions of fellow ballers to Israel with the intent of addressing what he sees as the “vexed image of Israel propagated by American media,” as reported in The New Yorker.

Casspi posted this photo of himself (third from left) with the caption '#family' during a trip to Israel with fellow players (Courtesy Omri Casspi Instagram)
Casspi posted this photo of himself (third from left) with the caption ‘#family’ during a trip to Israel with fellow players (Courtesy Omri Casspi Instagram)

Some of the funds for that trip came from Benjamin Netanyahu supporter Sheldon Adelson, who loaned the basketball players a private jet and funded a small portion of the trip.

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