Seattle Seahawk defensive end Michael Bennett
In mid-February, eleven NFL players were expected to be a part of a delegation to Israel. Only five showed up. Why this happened is worth understanding, because it is a window into the realignment of our country’s politics that will not stop at our borders.
The delegation of athletes was going to visit religious sites and hold an exhibition game together with players from the Israeli Football Association on February 18 in Jerusalem. It was a very tightly scripted itinerary. The goal, according to Gilad Erdan, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s minister of strategic affairs and public diplomacy, was to create “ambassadors of good will” who would be enlisted in the “intensive fight against the delegitimization campaigns” against Israel.
Seattle Seahawk defensive end Michael Bennett, who was supposed to be a part of this delegation, read about the itinerary and goals in the Times of Israel, and wrote the following response:
The day before this statement went public, a letter was published in The Nation, signed by Harry Belafonte, Angela Davis, Danny Glover, and many more, along with such organizations as Jewish Voice for Peace and the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights. It urged them to reconsider taking part in this trip as a way to “speak out against the injustices facing Palestinians.”
The fallout resulted in six players refusing to go. They include Bennett’s teammate and friend Cliff Avril, his brother Martellus Bennett, Dolphins receiver Kenny Stills, 49ers running back Carlos Hyde, Broncos running back Justin Forsett, and former NFL linebacker Kirk Morrison. (It should be noted that Martellus Bennett says that he was never going.)
Usually an athlete experiences substantial blowback for even the mildest criticism of Israel. Yet most striking about this story is that Michael Bennett has received an outpouring of praise on social media for his stance. There is even a thank-you letter online that has been signed by thousands.
This doesn’t surprise me. It fits with the broader mood out there that sees connections between the Black Lives Matter movement and the Palestinian struggle. It also fits with Netanyahu’s broad unpopularity with American Jews weary of his endless pursuit of illegal settlements and angered by his ardor for Donald Trump, someone who loves Israel but has refused to convincingly address the rise of anti-Semitic attacks and bomb threats since his election.
Just a two and a half years ago, NBA player Dwight Howard ignited a firestorm for tweeting the words “#FreePalestine.” He apologized. Those days are done.