The NFL Star Who Refused to Shine For Israel

Michael Bennett of the Seattle Seahawks. (Photo: Seahawks blog, file)

By James M. Wall

When I learned of the courageous decision made recently by Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett, I remembered my 1973 trip to Israel.

Bennett made headlines when he pulled out of an Israeli government-sponsored trip to Israel designed for NFL players.

He refused to be a part of Israel’s hasbara campaign.

Amy Goodman, host of Democracy Now, interviewed Bennett after he had written an open letter in which he said:

“One of my heroes has always been 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.’ I want to be a ‘voice for the voiceless’ and I cannot do that by going on this kind of trip to Israel.””

I made a similar trip just after the 1973 war, a trip arranged, but not paid for, by the American Jewish Committee. It was a journey with a surprise ending.

It was on that trip that I had the epiphany that opened me to the incredibly one-sided Israeli version of events that had led to the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, and to the occupation of Palestinian territory since the 1967 war.

On that trip,  I was guided by an American Jewish Committee (AJC) staffer. One day on the trip, I had three experiences my AJC host did not want me to have.

Through these three experiences I had a consciousness-raising, life-changing epiphany.

First, I saw my first Israeli settlement planted illegally on Palestinian land. That settlement is now Ma’ale Adumim, which became a “Jewish City” in 1991. Its 2015 population was 37,525.

Second, I had a long discussion with a Palestinian farmer whose water supply had been stolen by Israeli industrial farms in the Jordan  Valley. He showed me his almost-empty well down the hill from a modern Israeli well.

Third, I met the Bir Zeit College President and his latest faculty member. More on them below.

I have written elsewhere of my epiphany, and the young Mennonite minister who took me on my journey along the Jericho Road and up the Jordan Valley, to the Golan Heights and down to the campus of Bir Zeit College.

That longer story is available on line at Link magazine, published by Americans for Middle East Understanding (AMEU).

My epiphany in 1973 was different from that of Bennett’s. It was a different time. Bennett had a mentor like Ali, who had identified with the occupied Palestinians. I had no mentors in the U.S. like Ali.

What we share, Bennett and I, is the desire to share a truth we have encountered. Bennett’s decision was to make a risky moral decision to stand with Palestine. He shared that truth with other NFL players who were invited on the same “ambassadorial” trip.

In the end, only five out of the original 13 players accepted Israel’s one-sided trip to Israel. Bennett’s witness had struck a chord with them.

Bennett was blessed with a mentor named Muhammad Ali. I had to travel to Palestine to find my mentor.

When I became editor and publisher of The Christian Century magazine in 1972, one of the first calls I received was from a staff member of the American Jewish Committee. I was soon invited to lunch with the Chicago Israeli Consul.

At that time, and still today, Israel has an active hasbara campaign which targets American pastors with tempting invitations to “come and walk where Jesus walked”. The pastors ae told to bring members of their parish on their trip, and the pastor’s expenses are covered.

The same good-will trips are offered and accepted by politicians, police chiefs, NFL players, preachers, public officials, journalists, and anyone else with influence on others who are susceptible to a one-sided journey to “the Holy Land”.

In 1973, I was not a pastor, but a clergyman editor of an ecumenical national publication. Israel’s strategy to recruit pastors and other public leaders was, by 1973, already a huge success. They had less success, though, with this religious journalist.

When I was being courted by the Israels in my early months as editor, I was new to what western governments then called “the Palestinian problem”. My understanding of the issue, I am ashamed to admit, was largely shaped by the Leon Uris book, Exodus, and the movie that followed, featuring Paul Newman as Israeli military leader Ari Ben Cannan.

My experience and abject ignorance were shared by generations of seminary graduates who entered parish ministries. Seminaries were no help in introducing us to this immoral, highly significant criminal social justice issue.  What little we knew about “The Holy Land,” was shaped by a pro-Israel secular media and our devotion to the scriptures, a devotion Israel has always been eager to exploit.

In that “Holy Land”. this criminal violation of the Palestinian people remains a daily occurrence.

A current news story in the Palestinian publication Ma’an, is but the latest example of the brutal, illegal occupation. It was circulated by the IMEMC (International Middle East Media Center) in Jerusalem:

“Israeli soldiers abducted, Tuesday [February 28], five students of Birzeit University, including three females, in the Ramallah and al-Biereh District, while protesting near the Ofer Israeli prison, and violently assaulted them.

“The students were participating in a massive nonviolent procession held in solidarity with Palestinian detainees holding hunger strikes in Israeli prisons, including the former head of the Students’ Council in the University, journalist Mohammad al-Qeeq, and Jamal Abu al-Leil.

“The abducted students have been identified as Ahmad Khader, Hassan Daraghma, Miran Barghouthi, Zeinab Barghouthi and Bayan Safi.

In Israeli parlance, “abduct” is a euphemism for “arrested”. What the story does not add is that Palestinians who are arrested by soldiers of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), are not allowed to contact family members, nor lawyers.

This is not the conduct of a democracy; it is the method of dictatorial control by a nation funded by U.S. tax-payers.

In 1973, that dictatorial control was already in full military mode. I saw it then and have continued to see my American government cajole, suggest, tolerate and fund, successive Israeli governments who are free to arrest and imprison protesting students.

Forty-four years ago, I had not the slightest awareness of the evil of occupation, which is why I eagerly accepted the American Jewish Committee’s  invitation to visit Israel, a few weeks after the 1973 war.

It was a good and quiet time to be there. The war had frightened away tourists.The American Colony Hotel was eager to have me occupy one of their many empty guest rooms.

Early in my visit, while sitting with my AJC host in an almost-empty Jerusalem restaurant, the mayor of Jerusalem came by our table to welcome me to Israel. He was looking for American friends.

I had made one stipulation for my trip. I would accept arrangement assistance for travel and hotel arrangements, but as a journalist, I insisted on paying for that travel and hotel.

That made it easier for me to escape the AJC schedule near the end of my trip and agree to visit Palestinian territory under the watchful eye of a Mennonite I met. I would not have had my epiphany with my AJC host.

When my Mennonite friend, Leroy Friesen, and I visited the Bir Zeit campus, we had a long discussion with the college president, Hanna Nasir, who would later bring Bir Zeit into university status. In retirement he now serves as the chairman of the Palestinian Authority election system.

Nasir introduced us to a new professor just back from graduate school in Virginia. She was a Palestinian, Hanan Ashrawi, who had earned her Ph.D. in Medieval and Comparative Literature from the University of Virginia.

Dr. Ashrawi became the first woman elected to the Palestinian National Council. Over the years she has been active in Palestinian government affairs. She became a familiar figure on western television news programs as spokesperson for President Yasir Arafat.

Michael Bennett drew national attention to the injustice suffered by Palestinians when he refused to take a hasbara trip to promote Israel. He then influencing eight of his fellow NFL players to withdraw from the trip with him.

Leroy Friesen was my personal Michael Bennett. He introduced me to the reality of the Palestinian Occupation.

I should say how Leroy and I met. It was at a clergy meeting at the Holy Land Institute, in Jerusalem, which I described in my Link article, as “an institution of a more evangelical persuasion than that of the Christian Century, which is known in church circles as a liberal magazine.”

During a coffee break he quietly spoke to me and said, “you are not getting the full story on this trip”.

He offered to take me on a drive the next day through the occupied Palestinian West Bank. I cancelled my AJC schedule for the day. Early the next morning, we headed down the Jericho Road on a journey on which I was blessed with my epiphany.

In 1973, there were few Americans interested in hearing the Nakba story. There were few Americas who cared to understood the horror and brutality of a military occupation. Israel had successfully captured the hearts and minds of the American people through its intensive campaign to co-opt opinion-makers.

Today, 44 years later, a growing number of opinion-makers know and understand the ugly truth about Israel’s creation and its illegal occupation of Palestine.

One of those opinion-makers is a prominent professional athlete with a large personal following, Seattle Seahawks defensive end, Michael Bennett. At great personal risk to his career, Michael Bennett has taken a stand for Palestinian justice.

Bennett needs others to stand with him.  He needs American politicians, police chiefs, NFL players, preachers, journalists, and anyone else offered a one-sided journey to “the Holy Land”, to follow his lead. Spread the word, Michael Bennett’s got your back.

– To read more articles by James Wall visit: 

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