For proponents of Brand Israel, National Football League (NFL) players touching down for a visit in Israel seemed like the ultimate PR dream. How better to influence the opinions of young American men — especially African-American youth since all of the invited NFL players were black — about Israel? However, only five NFL players out of 11 original invitees actually showed up. The remaining six boycotted the trip, transforming Brand Israel’s PR dream into a flop.
Heeding the call of the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, a growing number of figures in the arts, pop culture, academia, and entertainment have been standing in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle to end 50 years of occupation. This solidarity has also spread to the world of sports where Palestinian athletes have long faced restrictions, such as Israeli checkpoints, that have curtailed their ability to train and participate in sporting events.
Alarmed at the growing success of the BDS campaign, Israel has sought to “Brand Israel” as a progressive and fun destination featuring beaches, great food, gay friendliness (i.e., pink washing), and anything else that the foreign ministry, which coined the term, can add to the visitors’ agenda
On the sidelines of the 2016 Academy Awards ceremony, for instance, the Israeli tourism ministry offered all-expense paid trips to Israel for Hollywood celebrities with the understanding that “their visit will have enormous resonance among millions of fans and followers, including [through] social media.”
America’s Voices in Israel (AVI), a project of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, regularly organizes “week-long missions to Israel for prominent headline makers.” Along with the Israeli tourism and strategic affairs ministries, they had hoped to pull off a PR coup with the NFL trip. This particular PR mission seemed targeted to young men, a demographic Israel has targeted before.
Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett was the first to declare his boycott. “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 of and opinion-former’ who would then be an ‘ambassador of good will’,” he wrote in a letter published on his Twitter account. “I will not be used in such a way,” Bennett added.
Further decrying Israel’s attempt to whitewash its abysmal human rights record, and firmly standing up for Palestinian rights, Bennett pointed to the example of “one of my heroes,” the late Mohammad Ali who “always stood strongly with the Palestinian people, visiting refugee camps, going to rallies, and always willing to be a ‘voice for the voiceless’.’” Moreover, Bennett evoked a long history of black athletes championing social and racial justice: “Like 1968 Olympian John Carlos always says, ‘There is no partial commitment to justice. You are either in or you’re out.’ Well, I’m in.” Carlos, the legendary track and field athlete who became famous for his Black Power salute on the Olympic podium, signed a letter, published by The Nation, calling on the NFL players to boycott the trip. The U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights and Jewish Voices for Peace were also signatories to the letter penned by Israeli-American sportswriter Dave Zirin.
Five other players, including Miami Dolphins wide receiver Kenny Stills, followed suit.
The ripple effect of this display of solidarity went viral on social media. One of the most shared tweets was an article by Morehouse College Professor Marc Lamont Hill, who participated in a solidarity visit of prominent African Americans to Palestine. “When people are lucky enough to be in positions of power and influence, such as Bennett and Stills, it’s imperative they use their platforms to speak out against social injustice,” Hill wrote.
Although the NFL players’ boycott of the PR junket generated significant awareness for Palestinian human rights on social media, it was clear that as the “carefully-planned image-buffing . . . turned into a public relations disaster,” according to one observer, Israel’s partisans still tried to brand a trip that backfired as a success. AVI used the hashtag #NFLinIsrael to chronicle the athletes’ daily travels. The hashtag got little traction on social media, where critics of the trip far outnumbered supporters.
AVI inadvertently revealed the cynicism behind the itinerary. It’s not a coincidence that an all-black squad of athletes visited a school for Ethiopian Jewish children, a community that faces widespread racism and police brutality, not unlike that experienced by blacks in the United States. If the athletes met any Ethiopians to discuss shared battles against prejudice, or had an opportunity to meet with Arab citizens in Israel inspired by the American civil rights movement for equal rights, AVI didn’t share this on social media.
AVI did, however, garner sought-after PR buzz through the Instagram accounts of New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan, Tennessee Titans tight end Delanie Walker, and Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Mychal Kendricks, but, here as well, the publicity was not what the tour organizers had bargained for. “Wish you would have followed the rest of the players who didn’t go on this trip. Israel using NFL players to revamp their image is laughable,” an Instagramer wrote after Jordan posted a photo of himself in Tiberius:
After Walker humored himself by attempting to mount a camel, Instagramers decried him “as a pawn in [Israel’s] propaganda machine,” and implored him to “come to the West bank or Gaza, see what occupation looks like and the affects [sic] it has on the people.”
Kendricks appeared to be enjoying his time; he posted videos and photos alongside Israelis, encouraged his followers to visit an Israeli restaurant and attended a party in a private Israeli home. Judging by his posts, it would be fair to assume that Kendricks wasn’t aware of the existence of Palestinians, and certainly hadn’t taken the advice of one Instagramer who advised him to “take a tour of the West Bank so you can really see the entire picture of what is happening there.”
Khelil Bouarrouj is a Junior Fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies.