Five National Football League players began a post-Super Bowl visit to Israel on Tuesday, following a storm of criticism by some of the other invited athletes who pulled out after expressing their displeasure with the stated goals of the visit sponsored by the Israeli government.
The five football players — down from 11 — currently in Israel are Calais Campbell of the Arizona Cardinals, the Oakland Raiders’ Dan Williams, Cameron Jordan of the New Orleans Saints, Delanie Walker of the Tennessee Titans, and Philadelphia Eagles player Mychal Kendricks.
All five were present at Haifa’s Rambam Hospital on Tuesday, one of the planned stops on the seven-day trip.
The trip’s organizers, including Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs, Ministry of Tourism and America’s Voices in Israel (a branch of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, a non-partisan group), did not confirm or deny which players were in Israel.
The planned trip also includes visits to major sites in Tel Aviv, the Dead Sea and Haifa, as well as Christian sites in the Galilee. The players will also head to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem and meet with representatives of the Black Hebrews in Dimona.
Steve Leibowitz, president and founder of the American Football League in Israel, said the group would probably have a “meet-and-greet” at Jerusalem’s Kraft Stadium — the outdoor football field created by New England Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft — on Saturday night, February 18.
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, Miami Dolphins’ Kenny Stills, San Francisco 49ers player Carlos Hyde and Denver Broncos player Justin Forsett. ESPN football commentator and former NFL linebacker Kirk Morrison was also set to join.
The visiting players have been mostly silent on social media since their arrival in Israel Monday night, with the exception of Philadelphia Eagles’ Mychal Kendricks, who posted an Instagram video on Tuesday in a Tel Aviv eatery, singing along to Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s get it on” and asking an Israeli waitress to say hello to the camera “in your language.”
The withdrawals from the trip, which garnered international headlines, were led by Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett, who pulled out saying he felt he was being “used” by the Israeli government 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, and reported by The Times of Israel.
Both ministers suggested the trip’s purpose was to “show a balanced picture of Israel” in the fight against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, as Erdan was quoted as saying, so that the athletes could become “ambassadors of good will for Israel,” said Levin.
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 in which he talked about his discomfort with being considered an ambassador for Israel, and proposing that when he does visit Israel, he will go to the West Bank and Gaza as well.
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.
There were also pressures on the football players from the BDS Movement, with an open letter published in The Nation and signed pro-Palestinian groups, activists and high-profile supporters including Harry Belafonte, Danny Glover and Alice Walker, who urged the players not to go.