No Winners in NFL Trip to Israel
Editor's Notebook

No Winners in NFL Trip to Israel

The first post-NFL weekend was embarrassingly full of professional football news related to Israel

Michael Jacobs

Atlanta Jewish Times Editor Michael Jacobs is on his second stint leading the AJT's editorial operations. He previously served as managing editor from 2005 to 2008.

Patriots, tight end Martellus Bennett (right), and brother Michael Bennett (left) both recently backed out of a trip to Israel.
Patriots, tight end Martellus Bennett (right), and brother Michael Bennett (left) both recently backed out of a trip to Israel.

The first post-NFL weekend was surprisingly and embarrassingly full of professional football news related to Israel, thanks to a fumbled public relations opportunity in the battle against the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.

Working with America’s Voices in Israel, an organization that specializes in bringing celebrities to Israel for positive experiences, Israel’s Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy Ministry and Tourism Ministry arranged for a weeklong visit by 11 NFL players and one retired player starting Monday, Feb. 13.

The timing was excellent to get some positive press, possibly including ESPN: right after the football season, right before the start of baseball spring training. We included the news of the trip in the AJT on Feb. 10.

But putting out a press release in advance of the trip was a big mistake, especially with comments from Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy Minister Gilad Erdan about his hope for the players to “present the beautiful face of Israel to their tens of millions of fans in the United States” and from Tourism Minister Yariv Levin about the players becoming goodwill ambassadors for Israel.

Yes, of course, Israel was hoping the players would return to the United States and sing the praises of the Jewish state. But the boasts by the two Cabinet ministers before the trip were the equivalent of a player celebrating an impending touchdown at the 10-yard line, only to have the ball slip out of his hand and roll through the end zone for a touchback.

The press release about the trip had errors, such as the claim that the visiting pros would participate in an exhibition game with players from the American Football League in Israel — league President Steve Leibowitz said the NFL players aren’t allowed to play in such games and weren’t asked to — but the biggest problem was that it created a target for BDS activists.

Some of those activists, including Morehouse College professor Marc Lamont Hill, 1968 Olympian John Carlos, author Alice Walker, entertainer Harry Belafonte, actor Danny Glover and Jewish Voice for Peace, posted an open letter to the football players, emphasizing false parallels between Palestinians and black Americans and urging them to boycott Israel.

Several of the players, starting with Seattle Seahawks defensive lineman Michael Bennett, fell for it. Bennett announced Feb. 9 that he wasn’t going on the trip and followed up with a letter on Twitter the next day to explain that he wouldn’t be used by Israel and would, at some point, go to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza to see how the Palestinians, “who have called this land home for thousands of years,” live.

Miami Dolphins wide receiver Kenny Stills celebrated Bennett’s tweet and joined the trip boycott. Bennett’s New England Patriots tight end brother, Martellus, also pulled out of the trip, although there was some dispute over whether he ever intended to go. Denver Broncos running back Justin Forsett pulled out, then later said he had made the decision weeks ago for family reasons, not politics.

The Bennetts and Stills are not defending principles, and they’re not aligning themselves with the side of justice. They’re exposing their ignorance and being used — the possibility that sparked Michael Bennett’s anger in the first place.

“If you didn’t want to be used, why didn’t you use the opportunity to try to learn more about the country and people that you chose to attack?” American Jewish Committee Assistant Executive Director Daniel Elbaum wrote in his own open letter to Bennett. And if the player wasn’t satisfied with the trip itinerary, why not use the celebrity and influence so valued by Israel to try to change it?

Israel’s not afraid of what visitors will see. Bennett would have learned that if he’d just opened his eyes to reality instead of propaganda.

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