Netanyahu asks visiting NFL players to be ‘gladiators’ for Israel
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Netanyahu asks visiting NFL players to be ‘gladiators’ for Israel

League’s Jewish Schwartz brothers present prime minister with football jerseys before group heads back to US after whirlwind tour

Jewish NFL football players and brothers Geoff (l) and Mitchell (r) Schwartz present Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with football jerseys that have his nickname on them, in his Jerusalem office, on February 19, 2018. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)
Jewish NFL football players and brothers Geoff (l) and Mitchell (r) Schwartz present Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with football jerseys that have his nickname on them, in his Jerusalem office, on February 19, 2018. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on a group of NFL players visiting Israel to use their influence to garner additional support for the Jewish state, during a meeting with them at his office in Jerusalem on Monday.

“All of you are gladiators and you have an enormous following. Israel is fighting in the arena, in the battle for truth. I think the most important part of your visit is that, having seen the truth, you can now fight for it,” Netanyahu told the players.

“I appreciate the goodwill and support and, I’m sure, determination to spread the word,” he added.

The seven NFL players’ tour was organized by a group called American Voices in Israel, which has been bringing influencers and minor celebrities — including actors, clerics and journalists — to the Jewish state since the early 2000s, with the belief that by seeing the country up close “they will understand the complexities of the situation,” the head of the organization, Irwin Katsof, told The Times of Israel last week.

This trip included the NFL’s only Jewish brothers — former Carolina Panther Geoff Schwartz and current Kansas City Chief Mitchell Schwartz — as well as Avery Williamson from the Tennessee Titans, Austin Seferian-Jenkins from the New York Jets, Vic Beasley from the Atlanta Falcons, Chris Harris Jr. from the Denver Broncos and Josh Norman from Washington, DC’s team.

The Schwartz brothers presented the prime minister with two jerseys — one red, one blue — each with his nickname, Bibi, written on the back.

At the meeting, Beasley also presented Environmental Protection and Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin with a jersey of his own, though his name was accidentally misspelled “Elkins,” leading some in the room to joke that it was intentional, meant to signify that there should be more of him.

NFL player Vic Beasely, of the Atlanta Falcons, right, presents Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin, center, with a football jersey, as NFL player Mitchell Schwartz, center-left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, watch, during a meeting in the premier’s office on February 19, 2018. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

Sitting down with them, Netanyahu regaled the players with the story of his first NFL game, when he was a young diplomat in Washington, DC, in the 1980s.

“I started out sitting like this” — he leaned back, crossing his arms — “but by the end of the game I was standing and screaming,” he said, waving his fists in the air for emphasis.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu regales visiting NFL football players with the story of his first time watching the game in Washington, DC, during a meeting with them at his Jerusalem office on February 19, 2018. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

(Two of the players — Seferian-Jenkins and Norman — did not attend the meeting with Netanyahu, as they were looking for a camera that had gone missing during the trip and were filling out a police report, organizers said.)

This was the second year in a row that the organization brought athletes to Israel, though the 2017 trip did not go as planned, with several sportsmen dropping out at the last minute for political reasons.

The itinerary of the 2018 trip included a mix of lighter tourist attractions — a dip in the Dead Sea, a jeep ride in northern Israel — and more meaningful historical and religious sites, like Jerusalem’s Western Wall Tunnels, City of David and Christian holy sites in the Old City.

The football players and their families also visited the Gaza Strip border and saw an attack tunnel dug by the Hamas terrorist group.

The trip included a stop in a Jewish settlements, as well, visiting the central West Bank’s Psagot winery and a soap factory in the northern West Bank, where Israelis and Palestinians work together.

A group of seven NFL players and their families visit the Psagot winery in the West Bank, as part of a tour of Israel organized by the American Voices in Israel group, on February 14, 2018. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

During the visit to Psagot, the players heard speeches from settlement officials, though they seemed to be more interested in the fine wine and delicious food.

The players seemed excited by the prospect of visiting holy sites in Israel and the West Bank, but less interested in politics.

“Me and my wife are big Christians, and we just always had this on our bucket list to come to the holy land and see where Jesus walked,” Chris Harris told The Times of Israel at the winery.

“We just wanted to come out here and be with the land. It’s more a religious trip that’ll help us be stronger with our faith. Our main focus in coming out here is just to visit, vacation and have fun, learn the history of Israel, and broaden our education,” Harris said.

A group of seven NFL players and their families visit the Psagot winery in the West Bank as part of a tour of Israel organized by the American Voices in Israel group, on February 14, 2018. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

Asked why he decided to come on the trip, Washington cornerback Josh Norman — who was sporting a necklace with a pendant in the shape of the Hebrew word for life, or chai — said, “I always felt that I was gonna end up in Israel.”

Geoff Schwartz said he and his wife — who recited the Jewish blessing over wine at Psagot — had been planning to come to Israel, but had not been able to until now.

“Obviously, coming to Israel is very special. We’ve wanted to go a couple times and haven’t been able to make it and then when they invited us to go, I don’t know how you say no to that,” he said.

On Sunday, the players dined with President Reuven Rivlin and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, including its executive vice chairman, Malcolm Hoenlein, under whose direction American Voices in Israel was created during the Second Intifada.

President Reuven Rivlin, center, poses for a photograph with seven NFL football players visiting Israel, as Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations CEO Malcolm Hoenlein, right, looks on, during a meal on February 18, 2018. (Avi Hayun/Conference of Presidents)

Last week, Katsof said the main mission of his organization is to “help the American population get a deeper understanding of what’s happening in Israel that goes beyond headlines and CNN soundbites.”

It pursues that goal by courting figures with the ability to shape public opinion. Tellingly, the group’s list of descriptions of the players participating in this year’s trip includes the number of followers they have on social media.

The cost of the trip is covered by American Voices in Israel, but Katsof stressed that it comes with “no strings attached,” and the participants are free to speak their minds during and after the visit.

The players paid to bring along family members — wives, fiancées, brothers, sisters and mothers — for the week in the Holy Land.

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