The NFL Star Who Refused to Shine For Israel

by James M. Wallseahawks-com

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

Bennett (right) 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 are told that if they bring members of their parish on their trip, 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 Israelis 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 Canaan.

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 (BZU). 

In retirement he serves as the chairman of the Palestinian Central Elections Commission, and is also the chair of the Board of Trustees of BZU.

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 influenced 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.

About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years. James M Wall died March 22, 2021 at age 92. His family appreciates all of his readers, even those who may have disagreed with his well-informed writings.
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16 Responses to The NFL Star Who Refused to Shine For Israel

  1. Rob Prince says:

    Like this piece a lot, probably because I was having “epiphanies” at around the same time (a few years prior, but not much) as Jim Wall about the Israeli-Palestinian “narrative”…Mine came in Tunisia as a Peace Corps volunteer where I first heard the “Palestinian narrative” from my students there to whom I am forever grateful…Always nice to see a professional athlete taking the moral/ethical high ground

  2. wallwritings says:

    Rob, I have often thought that some energetic author could produce a book which shares epiphanies about Palestine, like the one you describe from your Peace Corps volunteer work in Tunisia. Jim

  3. Jim, this is a wonderful, compelling rumination! How — oh, how! — I would love to have it fashioned into an op-ed for the LA Times or HuffPost or …? Isn’t there somehow that could be made to happen?

    My personal epiphany came in 1964 as a GI: I was a student of the Arabic language and culture at the Defense Language Institute, Monterey, CA. My prime instructor was a Jordanian-Palestinian whose family had been routed from Palestine in 1948. I was open-minded and receptive, and I’ve never been the same person since.

  4. hanna tosheh says:

    As long as the USA continues to drop 10 billion dollars a year into the occupation of Palestine, nothing will change. The US should think of what they are doing to the Palestinians who lived their since the beginning of times

  5. Sami Joseph says:

    As a Palestinian, I thank God that there are people who are blessed with moral rectitude.

  6. carolinepcracraftgmailcom says:

    My own Epiphany came in 2007 on a Sabeel-led trip. A bit like Paul falling off his horse, except my eyes were opened – not blinded. Just reading or photos don’t work – you have to SEE/EXPERIENCE the daily atrocities of the occupation. What really struck me on my most recent/4th trip (Fall 2016) was that the Jordan “River” had shrunk to a trickle. All that water drained off to grow bananas (tropical fruit) in the desert. The piers in the Dead Sea – stretched out over dry sand as the sea shrinks. Palestinian villages with water/electricity a few hours a day/ a few days a week, just a couple of hundred yards from Israeli settlements with swimming pools and fountains.
    GO, Friends, GO and witness!

  7. Ari says:

    The truth, will eventually prevail, thank you for speaking it

  8. Cindy Percak says:

    Jim, your column is so important because I believe that it really does take a personal connection to “get” what’s happening in Palestine. For me and my first husband, Steve Infantino, it was Doug Dicks and Martin Bailey, whom we met at the East Jerusalem Y following Steve’s sabbatical in Jordan in Spring 1996. We were invited to visit Jabal Abu Ghneim, which was being demolished to build Har Homa. We took video footage. Our time in Jerusalem changed our lives; Steve devoted his few remaining years to educating his students and parishioners on the profound injustices in the region. He died suddenly on March 1, 2000, 17 years ago today, and I re-visited Jerusalem on the first anniversary of his death, to be part of the international Sabeel conference. When I was just reviewing a photo of that Sabeel experience, I realized that the backdrop of the protest being photographed was…Jabal Abu Ghneim.

  9. Janet Gunn says:

    I headed East in 1986 for a sabbitical year to write a book on Holocaust survivors and victims and survivors like Primo Levi and Anne Frank. Friends had warned me to be careful about the “Arabs” in the Old City. I wasn’t and eventually volunteered with a Palestinian Human Rights program near Damascus Gate. Eventually, I wrote a memoir called Second Life: A West Bank Memoir, still in print with the University of Minnesota Press, that was organized around a teen-age camp activist whom I managed to bring to Boston for life-saving treatment following an exploding Israeli bullet that shattered his gut. He died two years later.

  10. Patricia says:

    I agree with Hanna, we Americans need to stop the flow of billions to ISRAEL that supports the immoral occupation of PALESTINE. I am afraid that I, too, fell victim to visiting Anne Franks hiding place in Amsterdam, movie Exodus, etc. But I am awake now!

  11. Rafeeq says:

    Mr. Wall, you spoke truth to the power. Excellent article I know as one who lived under this brutal occupation.

  12. Samia Khoury says:

    Thanks James. That was a very nice story, and a great change from the American elections. I just wonder how many Bennets are wiling to forfeit such an invitation these days, and how can we encourage them to do so. Your story reminded me of my father Musa Nasir, way back in the fifties and early sixties when he used to meet with groups mostly from the US, and when I would ask him how it was he would respond. “I think I baptized them” So he helped them have their epiphanies as well. I was so glad to see you mention the Mennonites and Leroy Friesen. They have a very credible history in the region, and I have been privileged to serve on their local advisory committee for the last few years.

  13. wallwritings says:

    I received your comment and it is posted. I deeply appreciate your continued positive responses to Wall Writings. Your father’s comment about baptizing visitors is wonderful. It is the right way to describe what I referred to as an epiphany.

    I do believe awareness is slowly dawning.


  14. Samia Khoury says:

    Thank you Jim and thank you for the long story on the Link. Very interesting.

  15. Hanna Nasir says:

    Your article Jim brings nostalgic memories of the first time we met in Birzeit in 1973. Forty four years later, the grip on the Palestinian land has gone stronger with scores of Jewish settlements being built on the territories occupied by Israeli in 1967. Israel often asks a rhetorical question: Is there a place that Jews are not allowed to build on? The answer is a categorical YES – if the land is an occupied land and belongs to somebody else. That dictum applies irrespective of the religion or nationality of the occupier.
    Hanna Nasir

  16. Lorrie Hall says:

    People should remember, whenever an all-expenses paid trip to Israel is offered, it is an “image-polishing” trip (a pushback by the Israel Lobby to the fact that many Americans are finding out how cruel the occupation is).

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