Don’t blame Seattle Seahawks Michael Bennett for skipping out on Israel trip

You can argue that Michael Bennett took the right or wrong stance by cancelling his “goodwill” trip to Israel, but that argument is largely irrelevant.

Bennett backed out because he felt like a pawn.

“I was not aware…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 and opinion-former’ who would then be ‘an ambassador of good will,’” the Seattle Seahawks DE said on social media. “I will not be used in such a manner.”

So the bigger story here gets at the heart of why Israel, and subsequently its supporters, are so upset that he –and the other NFL players he swayed – aren’t attending.  Unlike a celebrity charity event in the States, or an autograph signing session that athletes occasionally back out of and then piss off a bunch of fans, this trip was billed as something much bigger.

Athletes, like many other American celebrities, are a prominent cog in Israel’s global PR campaign machine, and they have been since 2005 when the country’s Prime Minister and Ministry of Foreign Affairs began unveiling the “Brand Israel” campaign.

“Brand Israel” was meant to take Israel from being perceived as a country fraught with ongoing conflict, to an inviting land that vacationers would revel in. The target? 18-34-year-old men.

Here’s a little background from Mondoweiss:

“Americans don’t see Israel as being like the US,” explained David Sable, CEA and vice president of Wunderman, a division of Young and Rubicam that conducted extensive and costly branding research for Israel at no charge. His conclusion was that while Israel, as a brand, is strong in America, it is “better known than liked, and constrained by lack of relevance.” Sable elaborated, Americans “find Israel to be totally irrelevant to their lives and they are tuning out…particularly 18-34-year-old males, the most significant target.” Brand Israel intended to change this by selecting aspects of Israeli society to highlight and bringing Americans directly to them. They started off with a free trip for architectural writers, and then another for food and wine writers. The goal of these “and numerous other efforts” was to convey an image of Israel “as a productive, vibrant and cutting-edge culture.”

For years, the campaign didn’t really work. In the 2009 EastWest Global Nation Brand Perception Index, Israel was 192 out of 200, behind North Korea, Cuba and Yemen. The narrative of Israel needed to change if the country were to curry favor and ultimately political capital from the West.

And so the introduction of athletes as brand ambassadors into and out of the state began. In 2009, when Israel’s record on LGBTQ issues was called into question, the government sponsored athletes for the World Out Games.

The “Brand Israel” mantra trickled beyond the government. A legion of NBA players went with Sacramento Kings player Omri Casspi in 2015 (Casspi is Israeli and his charitable foundation organized the trip), ten Jewish-American pro baseball players were just there, and the NFL has had a few different contingents of players (current and former) that have made it to the Holy Land. Nothing like convincing 18-34-year-old men that everything is cool when your sports stars tell you it is.

It’s not just that Israel wants to look good to the West. It’s that it wants the West to kind of forget about some its seedier actions, the ones that get Israel into trouble on the international law front. Most recently, Israel has angered the international community for passing a new settlement law that encroaches on Palestinian land.

Israel, by all accounts from my personal network, is a lovely place with incredible people. I hope to visit myself one day, but like Michael Bennett, I wouldn’t go under the guise of being anyone’s “goodwill ambassador” without consenting to it. I wouldn’t go knowing that what I was being asked to do was part of a coordinated, decade-long effort to hide some of the country’s most egregious warts. I’d rather go getting to see, talk to and learn what I wanted, on my own volition. Bennett has been consistent in this practice, refusing to drink even his employer’s Kool-Aid.

Marketing is everything is this day and age, except the stripped down truth.

His own version of the truth is what Bennett wanted and you can’t fault a guy for seeking that, regardless of the political ramifications.

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