NFL players land in Israel for tour a year after trip marred by controversy

Athletes scheduled to visit historical and religious sites, meet PM and president, in trip organized by pro-Israel group

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Seven current and former American football players arrived in Israel late Tuesday night for a week-long tour of the Jewish state, complete with meetings with the prime minister and president, the trip’s organizer said.

The visit was organized by a group called American Voices in Israel, which has been bringing influential opinion makers — including actors, clerics, 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 on Tuesday.

It is the second year in a row that the organization is bringing 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 Brothers Bennett, NFL players Michael Bennett (left) and Martellus Bennett, captured during an ESPN interview, were supposed to visit Israel on a seven-day trip; Michael Bennett has now become an outspoken opponent of the purpose of the trip (Screen capture/YouTube)

The withdrawals from the trip, which garnered international headlines at the time, 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 the days prior.

This time around, American Voices in Israel apparently attempted to avoid a repeat of last year’s events, keeping news of the trip quiet until the players touched down at Ben Gurion International Airport.

None of the attendees this year are members of the newly crowned National Football League champions, the Eagles (to the disappointment of this Philadelphia-born reporter), but there is nevertheless an impressive lineup of gridironers participating.

Geoff, left, and Mitch Schwartz are the first pair of Jewish brothers to play in the NFL since 1923. (Olivia Goodkin and Lee Schwartz/via JTA)

They include the NFL’s only Jewish brothers — former Carolina Panther Geoff Schwartz and current Kansas City Chief Mitch 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.

Katsof joked that while there are no Super Bowl winners in this year’s group, some of them may be future champions, as several participants from the 2017 trip went on to have winning seasons, notably Mychal Kendricks of the Eagles.

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 is “no strings attached” and the participants are free to speak their minds during and after the visit.

Tennesse Titans linebacker Avery Williamson eats ice cream with his sister, Erika, in Tel Aviv’s Neve Tzedek neighborhood as part of a trip to Israel with six other NFL players organized by the American Voices in Israel group. (Courtesy)

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

Avery Williamson, for instance, arrived in Israel with his sister ahead of the rest of the group on Tuesday and spent the day traveling around Jaffa and Tel Aviv’s Neve Tzedek neighborhood.

The full itinerary includes 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.

It also includes stops in Jewish settlements, including a winery in the central West Bank, Katsof said.

In addition, players are scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu next week.

One night, they will also dine 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.

The players and their families will also visit Safed’s Ziv Hospital to see some of the injured and sick Syrians who are receiving treatment in Israel under the army’s Operation Good Neighbor program.

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