Israel gave the royal treatment to New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft on Thursday with a high-profile lunch and meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu just before he was awarded the prestigious Genesis Prize, known as the "Jewish Nobel."
The feting and gala ceremony in his honor in Jerusalem offered Kraft a welcome reprieve just four months after he was charged with soliciting a prostitute at a Florida massage parlor. The 78-year-old billionaire businessman has vigorously battled the charges, and the case against him appears to be crumbling. He has pleaded innocent but also issued a written apology, expressing sorrow for hurting his family, friends and fans.
Still, the embarrassing affair appeared unlikely to tarnish the celebration of Kraft, a longtime supporter of Jewish and Israeli causes.
He was awarded the 2019 Genesis Prize in recognition of his philanthropy and commitment to combatting anti-Semitism.
The $1 million award is granted each year to a person recognized as an inspiration to the next generation of Jews through professional achievement and commitment to Jewish values. Organizers say Kraft will donate his award money to fighting anti-Semitism, the Palestinian-led boycott movement against Israel, known as BDS, and what they say are attempts to delegitimize Israel.
Accompanied by 15 active and former Patriot players, Kraft was delivering the keynote speech at a lavish ceremony Thursday night hosted by comic Martin Short. Dozens of VIPs were expected at the invitation-only event, including leaders of Jewish organizations, top business and political figures and the prime minister.
Kraft and his delegation were hosted beforehand at the prime minister's office, where they presented Netanyahu a signed Patriots helmet and posed for a joint picture along with the Vince Lombardi Trophy they won at this year's Super Bowl. Netanyahu thanked Kraft for his friendship, his longtime support and for boosting American football in Israel, where it has resonated with native-born Israelis who have taken a liking to the army-like strategy, camaraderie and collisions of the gridiron.
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"Everything you need in your game, Israel needs in its game," Netanyahu told the players. "You need strategy and courage and ingenuity, we have that too."
Kraft is the sixth winner of the prestigious prize, following former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, actor Michael Douglas, violinist Itzhak Perlman and sculptor Anish Kapoor. Last year's winner, Natalie Portman, snubbed the event because she did not want to appear to be endorsing Netanyahu. The saga was troubling for the foundation, which says it works hard to prevent its philanthropy from being politicized.
Kraft's selection in January seemed like a safe bet to avoid repeat awkwardness, given his years of philanthropic activity and deep ties to Israel. But the following month, Florida authorities announced the misdemeanor solicitation charges as part of a widespread crackdown on sex trafficking.
Kraft has kept a low profile since then and Patriot officials have pointedly deflected any mention of the case throughout the week-long visit to Israel. The team did not make Kraft available for interviews.
Kraft is the founder, chairman and CEO of the Kraft Group, the holding company of a diversified portfolio of businesses, which includes one of the largest privately-owned paper and packaging conglomerates in the world. He is best known, however, as owner of the six-time Super Bowl champion Patriots, one of the most successful franchises in American sports.
Kraft, who grew up in an observant Jewish home, is a well-known philanthropist in Israel, with deep connections to politicians across the political spectrum — including to Netanyahu, whom he's known for decades. Though a Democrat, he is also friendly with President Donald Trump.
Kraft is also the driving force behind the growth of American football in Israel in recent years. He's sponsored the sport since it was launched in 1999, and there are now more than 2,000 active players on more than 80 teams playing at various levels.
In 2017, he dedicated the Kraft Sports Complex in Jerusalem, which includes Israel's first full-sized football field. At the time, he brought a group of professional football Hall of Fame players with him, including well-known stars of the game Joe Montana, Jim Brown, Roger Staubach and Mike Singletary.
Tom Brady and other Patriots stars have also visited over the years. His current delegation includes kicker Stephen Gostkowski and former greats Drew Bledsoe, Ty Law, Vince Wilfork, Kevin Faulk and Andre Tippett.
Reigning Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman is also in Israel for the event honoring Kraft.
The Genesis Prize was inaugurated in 2014 and is run in a partnership between the Israeli prime minister's office, the private Genesis Prize Foundation and the chairman's office of the Jewish Agency, a nonprofit group with close ties to the Israeli government. It is funded by a $100 million endowment established by the foundation.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been granted the foundation's only lifetime achievement award.