The Israeli government has suffered an embarrassing blow after it emerged that only five of 11 NFL players turned up for an all-expenses paid PR trip organised to improve Israel’s image.
A storm of criticism had developed last week after the Israeli tourism minister claimed the players making the trip would serve as “ambassadors of goodwill for Israel”. Michael Bennett, the Seahawks defensive end, withdrew from the trip on Friday in protest at being “used” in such a way. He said he would visit Israel in his own time.
According to the Times of Israel, the quintet to make the trip were Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell, Raiders defensive tackle Dan Williams, Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan, Titans tight end Delanie Walker and Eagles linebacker Mychal Kendricks.
Bennett was the first to pull out. He was followed by Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril, Dolphins wide receiver Kenny Stills, 49ers running back Carlos Hyde and Broncos running back Justin Forsett. Retired NFL linebacker Kirk Morrison also was originally scheduled to appear.
In a social media post at the weekend, Bennett wrote: “I was not aware 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 goodwill’.
“I will not be used in such a manner. When I do 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. I want to be a voice for the voiceless, and I cannot do that by going on this kind of trip to Israel.”
The five players were present at Haifa’s Rambam hospital on Tuesday, one of the planned stops on the seven-day trip. The players are also expected to visit Tel Aviv, the Dead Sea, and Christian sites in the Galilee. A press release had suggested the players would take part in a friendly game against Israeli football players on Saturday, but Steve Leibowitz, the president of the American Football League in Israel, said that was not correct. “The most they’ll do is throw the first pass,” he said.
Gilad Erdan, the Israeli minister for strategic affairs and public diplomacy, had enthusiastically promoted the trip by claiming the players were coming to fight “negative and false characterizations of Israel”.
“I see great importance in the arrival of this delegation of NFL stars to Israel,” he said. “I have no doubt that their visit will be a powerful experience for them and I hope that, through their visit, they will get a balanced picture of Israel.”
He continued: “The ministry I lead is spearheading an intensive fight against the delegitimization and BDS [boycott, divestment and sanction] campaigns against Israel, and part of this struggle includes hosting influencers and opinion-formers of international standing in different fields, including sport.”
Tourism minister Yariv Levin echoed Erdan’s comments. He said: “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 goodwill for Israel.”
But government officials have since gone quiet. The public diplomacy ministry had no comment on Wednesday.
Last Thursday, the Nation published an open letter from activists including Alice Walker and Harry Belafonte urging the players not to go. The letter called on the players to “consider the political ramifications of a propaganda trip.”
It read: “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.”