Bird Watching

Sierra Club opens trips to Israel, after canceling under pressure

Five months after canceling its planned trips to Israel, then – following outrage from Jewish organizations – apologizing days later and saying trips would be resumed, the Sierra Club has quietly released a new Israel excursion for the ‘next year.

Called “Natural and Historical Highlights of Israelthe two-week trip in March 2023 will include many of the same activities the Sierra Club offered before activists convinced the environmental nonprofit to cancel two trips to Israel: snorkeling, birdwatching , nights in a kibbutz and visit to Tel Aviv.

But participants will also meet Palestinians working on conservation to hear “first-hand their daily and ongoing challenges,” according to the itinerary that was released Friday, which also mentions a visit to the Arava Institute, which brings together Israelis , Palestinians, Jordanians and students from around the world gathered for environmental studies and research, and whose motto is “Nature knows no political boundaries”.

The news is the latest development in a saga that has seen one of the country’s oldest and most influential environmental groups – which traditionally eschews politics in favor of a big-tent approach to environmental conservation – embroiled in a public controversy that has angered major Jewish organizations and prompted urgent intervention from California politicians. The Sierra Club is headquartered in Oakland.

Assemblyman Jesse Gabriel, who chairs the California Legislative Jewish Caucus, joined a virtual meeting with Sierra Club executive director Dan Chu and other caucus members after J. announced on March 11 that the Sierra Club indefinitely postponed trips to Israel at the insistence of groups who claimed the Sierra Club was “whitewashing” the conflict.

“It immediately caught my attention, as it did for several of my colleagues at [caucus]“Many of us work in the environmental field and have a good relationship with the Sierra Club. People were obviously very upset by that, and very disturbed by it.

Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt also met with Sierra Club management in March and said he was “encouragedby these conversations. “Experiencing Israel through its environment, geology, history and people does not negate or ‘whitewash’ the pressing reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he wrote in a letter. open to Chu.

Among the organizations that urged the Sierra Club’s leadership to drop its planned Israel outings were the US-based Palestinian rights group the Adalah Justice Project, the indigenous rights group, the NDN Collective , the Movement for Black Lives coalition and the Oakland-based anti-Zionist group. Jewish Voice for Peace group.

The groups claimed the Sierra Club supported an apartheid regime and provided cover for Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians by celebrating its stewardship of the environment. The Sierra Club, in general, said it does not get involved in foreign policy issues and offers outings to many countries, from Tanzania to China.

Advocacy groups, many of which support the boycott of Israel, celebrated after the Sierra Club decided to scrap its travels to Israel and removed all mention of them from its website. JVP called it “a positive step forward for environmental justice and Palestinian freedom.” Later groups deteriorated after Chu issued a statement on March 15 apologizing for the Sierra Club’s decision, saying it was made “in a hurry” and that new trips to Israel would be offered “soon” and would involve “input from a wide range of partners”.

Internally, the debate has created uncertainty and tension within the Sierra Club. The leadership was divided over the decision, which alienated some longtime members and volunteer leaders.

Oregon’s David Neumann, who has led outings since the 1970s, saw the decision as indicative of a pendulum swing left to the nonprofit, which he said was off-putting to some number of longtime members he knew. Neumann is Jewish and said the news hit him hard: “I haven’t slept much lately,” he said at the time.

Last week, the Sierra Club warned its employees of its pending decision in the days leading up to it, according to a memo obtained and published by the Adalah Justice Project. The memo, which addressed questions to National Program Director Michael Bosse, was addressed to Sierra Club officials: “On Friday, Sierra Club will announce details of an upcoming field trip to Israel and Palestine. We have created optional spaces tomorrow and Friday to equip managers to support their teams and support members of their teams as well as managers who have identities linked to Palestine and Israel.

The decision to postpone has caused confusion, disappointment and frustration for many in our community.

The Sierra Club viewed the controversy over its travels to Israel as tied to internal conversations about racial justice, intersectionality, and equity. The nonprofit, founded in 1892, has in recent years made concerted efforts to examine its own role “in perpetuating white supremacy,” a Sierra Club blog post says, thinking back, for example, to his reverence for Sierra Club founder John Muir, the early 20th-century naturalist who made derogatory comments about blacks and Native people. In the group’s early years, according to the post, the Sierra Club was “essentially a mountaineering club for middle- and upper-class white people.”

The March controversy has become “a critical inflection point in our journey to becoming an organization that fully exemplifies anti-racism, balance, collaboration, justice and transformation,” the Sierra Club said. in a statement released last week, entitled “Towards Just and Transformative Exits”. The organization did not respond to J.’s request for comment.

In the statement, the Sierra Club again apologized for its abrupt decision to cancel the March 2022 and March 2023 trips, a decision that confused and angered attendees who had already spent money and time. to prepare. The statement also referenced the damage control the nonprofit was obligated to do both externally and internally.

“The decision to postpone has caused confusion, disappointment and frustration for many members of our community,” reads the undated and unsigned statement. “Our volunteer leaders who had been planning this trip for over a year, trip participants who had already committed resources and time to the trip, and some members of our Jewish community who saw our decision as a political statement, leading us to reinstate for March 2023 and committing to reevaluate future routes.

The statement went on to say that the Sierra Club regretted the “backlash” experienced by some members of the community, which sparked “a path of repair and rebuilding.” Some of his constituents, including volunteers, staff and donors, were “deeply hurt and frustrated” by both the “initial trip” to Israel, he said, and the “non-consultative process.” who followed”.

Snubbed by the Sierra Club, pro-Palestinian groups exploded with public statements late last week denouncing what they called the non-profit organization’s “apartheid tours”.

“In February, we asked the Sierra Club to reverse Israel’s outflows in greenwashing Israeli settlement and its disastrous impact on the Palestinian people,” reads a joint statement from the Adalah Justice Project and of the NDN collective. “Sierra Club canceled two trips but backtracked after pressure from racist anti-Palestinian groups.

“We condemn the Sierra Club’s upcoming trips to apartheid Israel which give a green light to Israeli colonialism and harm indigenous Palestinians,” the statement said.

Along with Jewish Voice for Peace, the groups called for a mass social media campaign to push back against the Sierra Club on Instagram and Twitter. “Demand that the Sierra Club cancel their upcoming apartheid tours!” said an Instagram post from Adalah. “There can be no environmental justice without Indigenous sovereignty and Indigenous peoples in mind,” reads another article.

The San Francisco-based ADL office welcomed the news.

“As the itinerary highlights, Israel is rich in history and home to many natural wonders and initiatives of interest to anyone who cares about the environment,” said SF-based ADL regional director Seth Brysk. in a statement to J. “Experiencing Israel through its environment, geology, history and people provides essential opportunities for rewarding first-hand engagement with the many complex issues that must be resolved at the global scale.

The two-week trip is set to depart on March 14 and has a capacity of 15 people. It costs $5,455 per person and will include floating in the Dead Sea, a hike to Masada and a visit to Eilat, one of the world’s most important stopover sites for migratory birds.

The itinerary also includes visits to a Druze village, the Bahai Temple in Haifa and an “eco-village” where Palestinians and Israelis work together on water conservation issues. The trip leader is Bay Area resident Shlomo Waser. Waser did not respond to a request for comment.