Two top US National Football League players have pulled out of publicity trip to Israel, saying that they do not want to be “used” by the Israeli government.
Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett was the first to pull out of the trip planned for 12 football stars to tour Israel, including stops at Rambam hospital, Yad Vashem, and Jordan River’s Yardenit baptismal site.
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 explaining his motivation.
“I was excited to see this remarkable and historic part of the world with my own eyes. I was not aware until reading this article about the trip in The Times of Israel 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 good will.’”
“I will not be used in such a manner,” Bennett said. “When I 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.”
After he published the letter, Miami Dolphins wide receiver Kenny Stills retweeted Bennett, saying “Couldn’t have said it any better. I’m in!”
Bennett noted in his letter that one of his heroes was Muhammad Ali, who ” always stood strongly with the Palestinian people,” and said that he wants to be a “voice for the voiceless.”
“I cannot do that by going on this kind of a trip to Israel,” he said.
The original delegation of 12 — Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett, Martellus Bennett, Delanie Walker, Michael Kendricks, Cameron Jordan, Kenny Stills, Calais Campbell, Carlos Hyde, Dan Williams, Justin Forsett, and ESPN commentator and former linebacker Kirk Morrison — were to visit Rambam hospital in Haifa, the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem and the Black Hebrew community in the southern city of Dimona, according to a statement announcing the trip from Israel’s tourism and public diplomacy ministries.
During the visit, the players will hold an exhibition game together with players from the Israeli Football Association on February 18 in Jerusalem.
Players will also visit Christian sites in Israel, including the Jordan River site of Yardenit, where some of the players will be baptized.
Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy Minister Gilad Erdan expressed hope the visit would offer the players “a balanced picture of Israel, the opposite from the false incitement campaign that is being waged against Israel around the world.”
“The ministry which 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,” Erdan said.
Tourism Minister Yariv Levin echoed the sentiment.
“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 good will for Israel,” he said.
It was not immediately clear who was funding the trip. A February 5 press release by Israel’s Tourism Ministry said the visit “was initiated in cooperation with America’s Voices in Israel.”