JERUSALEM (JTA) — Two top National Football League players pulled out of publicity trip to Israel, saying they felt “used” by the government.
Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett on Friday posted a photo of Martin Luther King Jr. on Twitter with the caption: “Im not going to Israel.” On Saturday, he tweeted that he would one day take his own trip to Israel and also visit Palestinian areas.
The trip was announced by Israel’s Tourism and Public Diplomacy Ministries on Feb. 5. The NFL delegation was to feature 12 current or former players.
Earlier Saturday, Bennett tweeted an image of a letter with a longer explanation of why he would not be participating.
“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,” he wrote.
“I will not be used in such a manner. 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.”
Bennett also said that one of his heroes was boxer and black activist Muhammad Ali. ”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,” he wrote. “I want to be a voice for the voiceless and I cannot do that by going on this kind of a trip to Israel,” he said.
Hours later, Miami Dolphins wide receiver Kenny Stills — who was also supposed to be part of the trip — retweeted Bennet’s letter, saying, “Couldn’t have said it any better. I’m in!”
The 10 players presumably still in the delegation: Martellus Bennett of the world champion New England Patriots, Cliff Avril, Delanie Walker, Michael Kendricks, Cameron Jordan, Calais Campbell, Carlos Hyde, Dan Williams, Justin Forsett and ESPN commentator and former linebacker Kirk Morrison.
They are to visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem and the Black Hebrew community in the southern city of Dimona. Some of the players are expected to be baptized in the Jordan River. An exhibition game with a squad from the Israel Football Association is scheduled for Feb. 18 in Jerusalem.
An open letter to the delegation published Thursday in The Nation and signed by several pro-Palestinian organizations, including Jewish Voice for Peace, and by Alice Walker and actors Harry Belafonte and Danny Glover, called on the players to reconsider the trip, saying it is part of an effort to “help the Israeli government normalize and whitewash its ongoing denial of Palestinian rights.”