Last week, a group of storied NFL veterans including Joe Montana, Jim Brown, Mike Singletary, Eric Dickerson, and Roger Staubach made a brief trip to Jerusalem, where they visited the Western Wall, watched a few high school teams practice and pressed the flesh with Israeli fans.
But while the stated rationale behind the junket may have been to grow the league's brand, the result was not only a de facto embrace of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's radical agenda, but a dual celebration of the Israeli Defense Forces and the sport's implicit militarism.
The tour, called Touchdown in Israel II: Mission of Excellence, was organized by Robert Kraft, the New England Patriots owner and a staunch financial and political backer of Israel. Perhaps it's no surprise then that its attendees' public statements have been overwhelmingly effusive, if often jingoistic in tone. “Here, it feels like family,” said Roger Staubach, later praising the “resilience” of the Israeli military.
During an event held June 19 at the Kraft Family Stadium, the country’s first regulation-sized football venue built with a $6 million donation by Kraft himself, the Patriots owner ran down a list of positive values and traits espoused by Israelis and the Israeli state, including, “great hope, great preparation, never giving up, and winning." To the latter, he added, “You know we like that one.”
Kraft did not specify in what way Israel was “winning,” nor did he mention which side was losing in this paradigm. Instead, that task was left to Prime Minister Netanyahu during a meeting with the delegation of Hall of Famers on June 21. There, he held forth about achieving peace through strength, while insisting that Israel’s military and diplomatic policies are a game much like pro football.
"I'm sure that when you prepare for your games, you don't say, 'Well, do I need to be strong, fast, nimble? Is that a question?” Netanyahu asked. “Your game is no different from ours. The only difference is if we lose the consequences are immutable. And we've had enough of that in our history. So we won't let that happen again."
(If you’d like to watch Netanyahu make some clumsy references to the “one-yard line” and Iran's nuclear capabilities, check this out.)
The NFL was not an official sponsor of the Jerusalem visit, although the Patriots’ official team site was all too ready to trumpet the trip with summaries and video posts that read and watched like carefully vetted marketing materials. For its part, NFL.com provided more of the same. And while the entire 18-man delegations posed for a glossy photo in front of an F-15 fighter jet, Roger Goodell was leading a ribbon-cutting ceremony for (you guessed it) the Kraft Family Sports Complex, a 25-acre facility featuring three regulation-size football fields, paid for in part by an additional $6 million gift from Kraft.
Kraft's busy day continues with visit of Prime Minister @netanyahu https://t.co/3ts5dY14Wh— Allon Sinai (@Allon Sinai)1497972821.0
The financial incentives for the NFL are clear. They’re banking on the notion that images of Hall of Famers chucking the pigskin will lead to more Israeli eyeballs watching games and purchasing official NFL merchandise. It’s a market the league clearly wants to tap, and if it only costs airfare and lodging for the commissioner, it’s money well-spent.
According to the Associated Press, U.S. football has seen an uptick in popularity among Israelis, specifically because of its “army-like strategy, camaraderie and collisions.” What’s more, without an established and high-paying professional league to provide future employment opportunities, Israeli high school football teams are proving an “unlikely breeding ground of future commandos in the Israeli military.”
This isn’t the first time that Kraft, who is also a financial partner with the Israel Football League, has brought NFL athletes to Jerusalem, only to see them used as unwitting political cudgels. In 2015, members of the Super Bowl-winning 2015 Patriots participated in a similar week-long promotional visit, as Netanyahu attempted to enlist them as allies in his efforts to thwart President Obama’s negotiations with Iran.
In February, 11 current players were set to go on an excursion arranged in part by the Israeli government. In the end, only five players made the trip when it became clear it was little more than a naked propaganda campaign sponsored by the Knesset to counter the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement. Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett was the first to back out, after reading on-the-record comments from Israeli government officials, stressing that when he did travel to Israel, he would visit Palestinian refugee camps. None were on the original itinerary.
Shortly before Bennett’s announcement, the Nation made the case that all invited NFL players should boycott the trip. The open letter, signed by pro-Palestinian organizations and notable activists such as Danny Glover, Dr. Cornel West, Alice Walker, and more, drew a straight line between the struggle for civil rights in America, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the ongoing plight of Palestinians at the hands of Israel. “These trips bringing celebrities to Israel," it states, "are part of a larger ‘Brand Israel’ campaign to help the Israeli government normalize and whitewash its ongoing denial of Palestinian rights."
This time around, the Israeli government was kept at arm’s length, Netanyahu’s statements and presence notwithstanding. It’s how Ruthie Lieberman, the CEO of the Yes! Israel Project, a co-organizer of the tour, could tell the Times of Israel with a straight face, “The players are not the mouthpieces of Israeli hasbara (advocacy).”
But that’s a tough circle to square, given the involvement of Ron Dermer, who currently serves as Israel’s ambassador to the United States. Dermer claims it was his idea to conjoin the NFL and Israel through militarized language, describing players as “modern gladiators” whose mere presence in Jerusalem would be worth “a year’s worth of public diplomacy [for Israel]."
In at least one respect, his gambit has paid off. Save for a few articles from the Boston media, the trip has received scant media coverage, much less public criticism. And at a time when Colin Kaepernick can’t get a gig as a backup QB, due in some part to his political activism, the hypocrisy of the NFL is especially galling: They are taking a very political stance while blackballing a player for doing the same.
AlterNet spoke with Marc Lamont Hill, a professor at Temple University, and co-signee of the Nation's open later. He explained that tours to Israel like these, whether promoted by American groups like AIPAC or branches of the Israeli government, present an image of the country in which Palestinians are non-entities. When they're mentioned at all, it’s only as a potential threat to security and safety.
This is by design. Celebrities and athletes are shown a beautiful, largely European-style, multicultural and developed nation, and the resulting assumption is that "Israel must be doing something right," because the Palestinian narrative—and even the very question of their existence—has been eliminated from consideration.
“A big part of the occupation and a big part of the repression of Palestinian people is predicated on their erasure,” Hill said. “This is all part of Israeli statecraft; it's all part of the hasbara, or public relations, arm of the Israeli government.”
The only athlete even to mention Palestine was Singletary, who said he and other participants had heard from a group of young Palestinians about the Israeli occupation. But as he concedes, “You’re never going to get the full picture.”
Hill stressed that he didn't believe any of the athletes on the tour did so with ill intent. "I don't even think they think they're making a political claim," he said. "Because American politics has normalized Zionism,” to the point where it’s one of the few remaining issues that receives wide, bipartisan support.
Even the most tepid pro-Palestinian statements have garnered severe criticism for American athletes, as evidenced by the backlash to NBA star Dwight Howard tweeting #FreePalestine, and Amar’e Stoudemire posting an image of two children, presumably a Palestinian and an Israeli, holding hands during the height of the 2014 Gaza bombings, a campaign that killed over 500 civilians.
Hence the value of having these near universally adored U.S. athletes in Jerusalem. It’s a way for the NFL to make a political statement while appearing apolitical, and for Israel to do the same.
“Who doesn't like Joe Montana? Who doesn't like Jerome Bettis?” Hill asked. “The Bus, he's beloved. So if somebody's beloved, and they’re not seen as political figures and they do it, what happens is, it just reinforces the idea that it is not a political position to be pro-Israel; it's just life. It's like kissing a baby."