The Times of Israel reports
Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett, his younger brother Martellus Bennett of the NFL champion New England Patriots, Miami Dolphins wide receiver Kenny Stills and Justin Forsett of the Denver Broncos have all said they will not travel on what was supposed to be an 11-man squad to Israel later this year.
The trip was planned by Israel's Ministry for Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy and Ministry of Tourism, in coordination with U.S.-based Jewish organizations. The Israeli government explained the visit as an opportunity for "influencers and opinion-formers of international standing in different fields, including sport” to help spread “a balanced picture of Israel, the opposite from the false incitement campaign that is being waged against Israel around the world," a reference to the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS)
movement in support of Palestinian rights.
“Football stars are a source of inspiration for all American citizens," Tourism Minister Yariv Levin explained. "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."
However, Michael Bennett said he would not be "used" to promote Israel. "I'm not going to Israel," he tweeted
along with a photo of Martin Luther King Jr. on Thursday. “I was excited to see this remarkable and historic part of the world with my own eyes," Bennett wrote in a letter he tweeted
on Friday. "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 wrote. “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.”
"One of my heroes has always been Muhammad Ali," Bennett continued. "I know that Ali always stood strongly with the Palestinian people, visiting refugee camps, going to rallies and always willing to be a 'voice for the voiceless' I want to be a 'voice for the voiceless,' and I cannot do that by going on this kind of trip to Israel."
Less than two hours later, Stills dropped out of the trip, tweeting
"Couldn't have said it any better" in response to Bennett's letter. Bennett's brother Martellus — who said he will not visit President Donald Trump in the White House with his Super Bowl champion Patriots teammates — is also boycotting the tour. On Saturday, Forsett tweeted
Bennett's letter along with the message "For those who are wondering I will not be on this trip to Israel." He later attributed
his decision to his wife's pregnancy and when pressed by a CNN reporter if he would travel to Israel if his wife wasn't pregnant, Forsett tweeted
"I'm really uninformed on the issues over there right now, I'm doing my best now to get up to speed then I can make an informed decision."
The players' boycott began the same day the Nation
published an open letter
to the 11 players linking the Palestinian struggle against Israeli oppression to the fight for civil rights in American communities of color. "These trips to Israel are part of a larger... campaign to help the Israeli government normalize and whitewash its ongoing denial of Palestinian rights," the letter states. "The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has dedicated a lot of resources to this campaign, which is designed explicitly to improve Israel’s image abroad to counter worldwide outrage over its massacres and war crimes."
The letter accuses the Israeli government of "aiming to use your fame to advance their own agenda: an agenda that comes at the expense of the Palestinian people." It then summarizes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:
Palestinians have for decades been fighting policies similar to the ones people are protesting in cities across the United States. This May, Palestinians will mark 69 years since they were forcibly displaced off their lands during the establishment of the state of Israel. Since then Israel has continued to expel, deny, and ban Palestinians, tearing apart families and keeping millions of refugees from returning home. Israel’s brutal military occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem has now lasted 50 years and has included the building of illegal Jewish-only settlements on stolen Palestinian land, the construction of an apartheid wall to further keep Palestinians out, and the destruction of more than 25,000 Palestinian homes. Within Israel there is a purposeful policy to divide people based on their nationality and religion, with more than 50 laws that privilege Jewish citizens over non-Jewish citizens. Palestinian athletes have been subject to violence by Israeli soldiers and not been allowed to travel to participate in competition, including the Rio Olympics. And this summer will mark three years since Israel’s deadly assault on Gaza, when Israel dropped an estimated 20,000 tons of explosives, killing at least 2,200 Palestinians, including 500 children. All of these war crimes against Palestinians are funded by the United States, which sends at least $3.8 billion in military aid to Israel every year.
"We urge you to rethink your participation in this trip to Israel and the message it will send to your millions of fans who look up to you," the letter concluded. "The power athletes have in contributing to the fight for justice is evidenced in the legacy of the late Muhammad Ali, who himself was an advocate for Palestinian rights. Angela Davis recently said at the Women’s March in DC attended by tens of thousands of people: 'Women’s rights are human rights all over the planet and that is why we say freedom and justice for Palestine.' Please reconsider taking this trip to ensure you are standing on the right side of history."
The letter was signed by a variety of pro-Palestinian groups, including Jewish Voice for Peace, and leading black champions of social justice, including author Alice Walker, activist Angela Davis, actors Danny Glover and Harry Belafonte and Olympic medalist and black power icon John Carlos.