It seemed like a brilliant idea.
Bring a few NFL players to Israel all expenses paid, take them to the country’s most attractive sights and bask in the public relations coup of their wonderful social media posts.
What could possibly go wrong? Well, pretty much everything.
The tour got underway on Monday, but has already backfired disastrously, with at least three of the players withdrawing from the visit over the weekend, explaining that they do not want to be “used” by the Israeli government.
The initiative of the Ministry of Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy and the Ministry of Tourism to arrange a trip for a group of 11 American football players to tour Israel for a week sure looked promising.
It may well have also reaped the planned rewards had the ministers not tried to gain themselves some positive press from the tour, which is estimated to have cost the tax payer between NIS 300,000-400,000.
The tour is also sponsored by America’s Voices in Israel, an initiative of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
The visit was announced in a press release last Sunday in order to coincide with the Super Bowl held later that day in Houston.
“There is a great importance to the visit of a delegation of NFL stars to Israel,” said Minister of Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy Gilad Erdan.
“I’m sure that this visit will be a great experience for them and that it will give them a balanced picture of Israel, opposite of the deceptive campaign being held against Israel across the world.”
Erdan added that the players “will show their tens of millions of fans the true face of Israel. We are leading a campaign against the delegitimization of Israel and part of this campaign is to arrange visits of celebrities in different fields, including sports.”
But instead of becoming goodwill ambassadors for Israel, three of the players turned into figureheads of the anti-Israeli BDS movement.
Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett led the boycott, being joined by brother Martellus, who won the Super Bowl with New England last week, and Miami Dolphins wide receiver Kenny Stills.
Bennett wrote via Twitter and Instagram last Friday night that he was “excited to see this remarkable and historic part of the world with my own eyes”, but that he was not aware that his itinerary had been 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.’” Bennett’s decision came on the heels of an open letter by renowned musicians, artists and social justice advocates released last Thursday asking the NFL players “to consider withdrawing from the delegation given Israel’s track record of human rights abuses.”
The letter urged them “to consider the political ramifications of attending the trip, drawing connections between the struggles faced by Black and Brown communities in the US, and Palestinian, Eritrean and Sudanese communities in Israel and the Palestinian territories.” The letter was signed by entertainer and activist Harry Belafonte, activist Angela Davis, actor Danny Glover and former sprinter John Carlos, among others, and co-signed by organizations that included the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights.
“I will not be used in such a manner,” explained Bennett. “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.”
Since Bennett’s announcement, the Ministry of Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy is seemingly doing its best to keep the visit under wraps. The tour schedule was changed, with what was supposed to be a joint public visit to the Rambam Medical Center in Haifa on Tuesday with players from Israel’s national football team becoming a private visit for delegation members only.
It is even unclear how many players have actually come to Israel, with the original list including: Tennessee tight end Delanie Walker, Eagles linebacker Michael Kendricks, New Orleans defensive end Cameron Jordan, Arizona defensive lineman Calais Campbell, San Francisco running back Carlos Hyde, Oakland defensive tackle Dan Williams, Denver running back Justin Forsett and ESPN commentator and former linebacker Kirk Morrison.
The trip is set to also include visits to Yad Vashem and the Black Hebrew community in Dimona, as well as an exhibition game with the Israel team in Jerusalem on February 18.
It remains to be seen if further changes will be made to the schedule.
Bringing celebrities to Israel in order to improve its reputation or promote tourism is nothing new. There have been many similar tours in the past, including an initiative by the Omri Casspi Foundation backed by the National Basketball Players Association in the past two years aimed at presenting Israel in a positive light across the world.
NBA, WNBA, UFC and Hollywood celebrities, including actor Jeremy Piven, NBA players past and present Amar’e Stoudemire, Shawn Marion and Rudy Gay and UFC fighter Georges St-Pierre, were among those who toured Israel last August, and according to their postings on social media, immensely enjoyed their time in the country.
Pro-Palestinian activists also called on those participating in the Casspi tour to pull out, but no cancellations were registered.
Even though it wasn’t a trip organized by government officials, Casspi’s delegation still knew exactly why it was coming to the country.
In a visit arranged by the government, those participating should have little doubt regarding the purpose of their tour. Clearly, that was not the case with the NFL delegation.
Pressure by anti-Israel groups surely played its part, but had Bennett been given the full picture in advance, the PR disaster may well have been prevented.
Keeping the visit, or at least the names of those taking part, buttoned up for a little longer would have also helped. But expecting a politician to turn down a chance for some free publicity is as realistic as the BDS arranging the next pro-Israel tour.