By Gabe Stutman
(J. The Jewish News of Northern California via JTA) — 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.”
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.
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 Assemblymember 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.”
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 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.”
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.”
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 acknowledgements and then disposed of us as soon as your funders threatened.”
A version of this article originally appeared in The Jewish News of Northern California.