Can foreign governments promote their home countries and support diplomatic goals by sponsoring trips for prominent Americans without engaging in undue propaganda?
On Monday, a delegation of various NFL players will arrive in Israel, to scrimmage against the Israeli Football Association and see different historic sites, including the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem. On the face of it, the trip seems like a fun and educational opportunity for the NFL players and a fair attempt at outreach by the Israeli government.
However, some players recently decided to withdraw from the scheduled trip and the entire affair is now mired in controversy.
Michael Bennett, a defensive end for the Seattle Seahawks, decided to forgo the trip because he “does not want to be used as an influencer and opinion-former.” Israeli Strategic Affairs and Diplomacy Minister Gilad Erdan is to blame for Bennett’s withdrawal. Erdan wanted to use Bennett and the rest of the delegation as “ambassadors of goodwill for Israel.” Bennett, with some justification, interpreted the comments as indicating that Israel had an ulterior propagandizing motive for sponsoring the trip.
Erdan’s blunt comments do not do the trip’s complex motives justice. The Israeli government would surely like to show off the best aspects of its country, just as any host would do for any visitor. But that dynamic does not preclude the trip from realizing its educational and cultural exchange goals. Israel is not trying to take advantage of professional football players for pure propaganda purposes.
In retrospect, the trip should have included seeing the West Bank and majority Arab towns and cultural sites. This would have provided a more holistic picture of the country and countered impressions that the Israeli government was trying to play down political conflicts. Indeed, Bennett withdrew from the trip not because he is passionately anti-Israel, but because he wanted an unbiased and complete experience. He said he wants to see Israel with his “own eyes,” including areas of conflict like Gaza.
Israel’s political history is very complex and ill understood by most American observers. For example, Israeli governments have always been more hospitable to land sharing solutions than their Arab counterparts. Israel only acquired areas like Gaza and the West Bank, now referred to as “occupied territory,” because Arab political leaders rejected diplomatic solutions and initiated wars aimed at destructing Israel. Moreover, Israel was not always militarily and economically powerful, it has only built those capabilities through hard work and sacrifice. But most Americans don’t know this, and instead see Israel as an oppressor and Arabs as the oppressed. If the Israeli government attempts to show an inaccurate picture of the current political situation it only reinforces Americans’ misguided beliefs.
Sure, a large portion of the delegation will still make the trip to the Holy Land, but the trip is now mired in controversy. A few years ago, DeMarcus Cousins and several NBA players traveled to Israel to support NBA Cares and the Omri Casspi Foundation. This was a successful trip, as the entire group that went to Israel had an enjoyable experience and likely came away with a positive impression. The only difference between that trip and the NFL trip is that Israeli officials did not undermine it beforehand.
What could have been an informative and impactful experience is no longer so because of a questionable decision by the Israeli government.