Environmental group chief says cancelation was not appropriate and was made hastily without consulting stakeholders; pro-Palestinian, anti-Zionist groups outrage at the reversal

JTA/Gabe Stutman | Published: 03.16.22

Following an advocacy campaign by national Jewish and pro-Israel organizations, the Sierra Club has reversed its recent decision to cancel trips to Israel.

Pro-Palestinian advocates had successfully pressed the American environmental group to scrap the trips, charging that the trips “greenwash Israel’s system of apartheid.”

זריחה בכינרת
Sunset over the Sea of Galilee
(Photo: Yossi Revach)

The cancelation was not appropriate, executive director Dan Chu said in a statement released Tuesday afternoon.

“Recently, the Sierra Club hastily made a decision, without consulting a robust set of stakeholders, to postpone two planned outings to Israel,” Chu said. “The process that led to this was done in ways that created confusion, anger, and frustration.”

He added, “Let me be clear: the Sierra Club’s mission is to enjoy, explore and protect the planet, and we do not take positions on foreign policy matters that are beyond that scope.”

Chu said the Sierra Club would be offering trips to Israel later this year and that the group is “committed to working with stakeholders to ensure these trips are crafted in a way that better reflects the range of diversity in the region.”

The announcement followed a concerted advocacy campaign from Jewish and pro-Israel organizations, spurred by Friday’s report by J. The Jewish News of Northern California about the group’s decision to cancel trips to Israel following the urging of several pro-Palestinian groups. The advocacy included an outpouring of public statements, open letters and a virtual meeting with Sierra Club leadership.California Jewish advocacy groups and state politicians met virtually with Sierra Club officials Monday afternoon. Tye Gregory, who heads the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council, attended the meeting and said he was “encouraged” by the response of Sierra Club leadership.

נוף ירוק ופורח בשמורת הבשור
Luscious verdant scenery in southern Israel’s Habsor Reserve
(Photo: Gilad Carmeli)

Sierra Club’s trips to Israel include tours of the country’s ancient ruins, natural landscapes and bird populations.

The JCRC in Silicon Valley also attended the Monday meeting, as did the Jewish environmental group Hazon, state Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco and Assembly member Jesse Gabriel of the San Fernando Valley, the chair and vice chair of California’s Legislative Jewish Caucus.

Days of dueling statements, social media posts and open letters from interest groups followed the initial Friday report. While Jewish pro-Israel groups excoriated the decision to cancel, pro-Palestinian and anti-Zionist organizations celebrated it as a major win in their efforts to protest against what they said was “Israel’s systemic racism.”

Among the Jewish organizations pressuring Sierra Club to reverse course were the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, the JCRC and others, who criticized the historic American nonprofit sharply. They charged that the group had wrongly embraced the controversial boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, had acquiesced to groups that demonize Israel unfairly or had caved to interest groups that pose an obstacle to peace by rejecting Israel’s existence.

The Palestinian Adalah Campaign for the Boycott of Israel, Jewish Voice for Peace, the NDN Collective, the Movement for Black Lives and at least three other groups were behind the effort to urge Sierra Club leadership to cancel the Israel tours, charging that the trips “erase the existence of the Palestinian people and Israel’s systemic racism,” provide legitimacy to Israel and tacitly overlook environmental crimes committed against Palestinians, such as redirecting water to Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

The trips “greenwash Israel’s system of apartheid,” the groups wrote in a Feb. 22 letter to Chu and Sierra Club’s board of directors, and “make a mockery of the Sierra Club’s stated commitment” to grow the environmental movement “so that oppressed communities will find justice.”

 דו"ח אמנסטי
Amnesty 2022 report accusing Israel of apartheid policies
(Photo: AP)

Internally, the organization had been divided on whether to cancel the trips. Historically, the Sierra Club has not “restrict[ed] our trips due to regional conflicts or politics,” according to an email from Mary Owens, a volunteer chair of the outings committee. Ultimately the leadership decided to do so, while Owens and the outings committee, which oversees national and international tours, were “very disappointed with the decision,” Owens wrote.

After the Sierra Club’s decision came to light, Jewish and pro-Israel groups worked quickly to mobilize a response that included public statements and Monday’s meeting.ADL executive director Jonathan Greenblatt shared his concern in an open letter to Chu that the organization was making concessions to groups that try to “shut down any form of engagement or interaction with Israel or Israelis.”

These groups, Greenblatt wrote, “present a biased and simplistic approach to the complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict, positioning this dispute over territorial and nationalist claims as to the fault of only one party — Israel — while ignoring other actors and dynamics.

“Experiencing Israel through its environment, geology, history and people does not negate, nor ‘greenwash,’ the pressing reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Greenblatt added.

“No other country has been singled out,” Gregory wrote in an email to the JCRC community, arguing that claims of “greenwashing” played into antisemitic tropes. “An autumn trip to China, for example, is proceeding.”

חורף קריר בלי גשם בערבה התיכונה
Western Arava mountains
(Photo: Hilli Bloch)

Initially, pro-Palestinian and anti-Zionist organizations had issued statements praising what appeared to be a successful campaign to hold Israel accountable for what they consider to be crimes committed against Palestinians.

Following the nonprofit’s decision to reverse course, Gregory issued a statement of support.

“It is critical we not allow cynical attempts to delegitimize Israel to push Jews and others with personal connections to Israel out of social justice spaces,” he wrote. “Of equal importance, we cannot allow an existential issue as critical as combating climate change to be derailed by toxic political infighting.”

The California Legislative Jewish Caucus, a statewide group of liberal Jewish legislators, issued a statement supporting the reversal, as well.

“We applaud the Sierra Club for quickly reversing course and are pleased to see their firm commitment to continue sponsoring trips to Israel,” the caucus said. “We are also grateful to the Sierra Club’s senior leadership for their willingness to engage in frank, thoughtful, and productive conversations with members of our Caucus and our trusted community partners. We look forward to continuing to partner with the Sierra Club on our shared goals of fighting the climate crisis, protecting our planet, and building a more just and equitable world for all.”

In a press release Tuesday morning, Jewish Voice for Peace called the decision by the Sierra Club to cancel the trips a “positive step forward for environmental justice and Palestinian freedom.”

An anti-Semitic banner at a pro-Palestinian demonstration in Hyde Park, London in May 2021
An anti-Semitic banner at a pro-Palestinian demonstration in Hyde Park, London in May 2021
(Photo: Twitter)

By the afternoon, the group was joining others in expressing outrage at the reversal.“Your engagement with our coalition was dishonest+reprehensible,” the Adalah Campaign told the Sierra Club in a tweet that Jewish Voice for Peace’s account shared. “You introduced yourselves with land acknowledgments and then disposed of us as soon as your funders threatened.


Sierra Club cancels Israel trip at urging of progressive and anti-Zionist groups

Anti-Zionist activists threaten environmental nonprofit claiming it is ‘violating its organizational values’ by legitimizing Israel and its apartheid policies; Sierra Club adopts progressive values and language more overtly into its mission

JTA/Gabe Stutman | Published: 03.15.22

The national environmental nonprofit Sierra Club, headquartered in Oakland, California, has canceled its scheduled trips to Israel in response to pressure from progressive and anti-Zionist groups.

The decision came after activists alleged the organization was “greenwashing the conflict” and “providing legitimacy to the Israeli state, which is engaged in apartheid against the Palestinian people,” a volunteer leader with the nonprofit summarized in an email this week.

 דו"ח אמנסטי

“Greenwashing,” like “pinkwashing” which refers to LGBTQ rights, is a term used by critics of Israel to refer to the act of obscuring Israel’s treatment of Palestinians by focusing on the country’s liberal environmental values or policies.

News of the Sierra Club’s decision came in a mass email obtained by JTA, that was sent out by Mary Owens, the chair of the Sierra Club’s National Outings team, to hundreds of volunteers who lead part-recreational, part-educational, conservation-focused trips around the world.

For years the Sierra Club, established in 1960, has offered trips to Israel to explore the country’s biodiversity, bird migrations, desert landscape and ancient ruins. Last year’s trip was called “Natural and Historical Highlights of Israel,” offered for two weeks in March for about $5,000 per person. It advertised a “comprehensive journey through this enduring land,” with birdwatching, sea snorkeling, a visit to the Dead Sea and evenings on a kibbutz. Sierra Club outings are a major source of fundraising for the organization.

קשת של ציפורים, עמק יזרעאל

The volunteer leader for that Israel trip was Shlomo Waser of Sunnyvale. Waser did not respond to a request for comment from JTA.On the Sierra Club’s website more than 250 upcoming trips are listed, including more than 200 to sites in the U.S. and others to places like Malaysia, Nepal and Antarctica. A trip to China is planned for October. The website no longer lists a trip to Israel, and a number of webpages with information on past Israel trips were taken down on Friday afternoon. A notice appears at the top of the Middle East destinations landing page noting: “There are currently no Middle East trips scheduled.”

The email from Owens, who said she was not authorized to speak to the press, described the Sierra Club’s decision to cancel its trips — one scheduled for this month, and another for March 2023 — as the result of an advocacy push from one “Jewish American activist” and a host of both progressive and anti-Zionist groups, including the pro-Palestinian Adalah Justice Project, the Indigenous rights group the NDN Collective, the Campaign for the Boycott of Israel, Jewish Voice for Peace, the Sunrise Movement and the Movement for Black Lives.

Pro-Palestinian protesters march outside the White House

An employee with the NDN Collective confirmed he was aware of his organization’s efforts but was not authorized to say more. A request for comment from JVP, the Jewish anti-Zionist group, went unanswered.

The email from Owens read: “On January 20, the board of directors received an email from a Jewish American activist urging us to cancel our upcoming trips to Israel (scheduled for March 15 and 29, 2022 and March 2023), saying that we are greenwashing the conflict there and providing legitimacy to the Israeli state, which is engaged in apartheid against the Palestinian people.”

The board notified Owens and the National Outings team, which “sent our standard response which states that we don’t restrict our trips due to regional conflicts or politics,” Owens wrote. “The activist was not satisfied and said he planned to get additional activist groups involved.“

On February 22, the board received an email from a coalition of activist organizations … threatening that if we did not cancel the upcoming trips within a week, they would go public that the organization was violating the organizational values it recently rolled out.”

Acting executive director Dan Chu, the email said, “appointed a group to handle the response” and notified Israel trip leaders.

סמל המנורה בבית כנסת בית אל במישיגן

The special group appointed by Chu met with the progressive activists, the email said, “who insisted that there was no room for compromise and reiterated their demand that we cancel the trips by March 7.”

The group “spent the next few days reviewing the pros and cons of each outcome,” Owens wrote, adding: “the National Outings team did not want to cancel the trips.”

In the end, two members of the group appointed by Chu recommended that he cancel the trips, “and he agreed,” Owens wrote.

The Sierra Club’s national press office did not respond to a detailed list of questions from JTA.

The decision comes as the Sierra Club, one of the oldest and most influential environmental nonprofit organizations in the United States, has made a push to fold progressive values and language more overtly into its mission, including rhetoric around social justice and anti-racism.

A webpage linked in Owens’ note includes a guide to “practicing anti-racism at Sierra Club,” listing the need for “focused and sustained action,” “maintaining accountability” and “rejecting norms of internalized racial oppression,” among other tenets.

On June 17 of last year, the organization announced for the first time its support for reparations for Black Americans. “It is impossible to create a healthy, safe, and sustainable planet without acknowledging and materially addressing the past and present economic, cultural, psychological and spiritual impacts of racism,” the statement said.Some longstanding members of the group see in the embrace of social justice concepts an ideological shift leftward within an organization that has historically been a big tent. Its decision on Israel has reinforced that view.“

It’s a pendulum, and it’s very much swung to the progressive side of things,” said David Neumann of Oregon, a Jewish Sierra Club member since 1968 who leads outings in California and his home state.“

Obviously, people who care about the environment aren’t necessarily progressives,” he said. “You can care about the environment and have different political views. We have Republicans among us.”

Neumann said he strongly opposed the decision to cancel the Israel trips, calling it the result of an ideological “purity test” and a capitulation to progressive groups who “put the screws” to Sierra Club leadership.“

I knew they were really into equity and justice, as am I, and that’s all fine,” he said. “But these groups that call Israel an apartheid state — that’s so far out there,” he said. “That’s so not mainstream. That’s crazy.”

Owens, the chair, wrote that she and the outings administrative committee were also “very disappointed with the decision.”“A terrible precedent has been set,” she wrote, that “can potentially put other international as well as domestic trips at risk of being subjected to the same treatment.”

Content distributed by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency news service.