Sierra Club cancels trips to Israel at the request of progressive and anti-Zionist groups

(J. The Jewish News of Northern California via JTA) — The nonprofit Sierra National Environmental Club, headquartered in Oakland, has canceled planned trips to Israel in response to pressure from progressive and anti-Zionist groups.

The decision came after activists alleged that the organization was “whitewashing the conflict” and “giving legitimacy to the Israeli state, which is committed to apartheid against the Palestinian people”, a volunteer leader of the organization summed up. nonprofit in an email this week.

“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 values ​​or the country’s liberal environmental policies.

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News of the Sierra Club’s decision came in a mass email obtained by J. that was sent by Mary Owens, the president of the Sierra Club’s National Outings Team, to hundreds of volunteers who run part-recreational, part-educational and conservation-oriented activities. travels 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 titled “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,” complete with birdwatching, snorkeling at sea, a tour of the Dead Sea and evenings at a kibbutz. Sierra Club outings are a major source of fundraising for the organization.

The volunteer leader for this trip to Israel was Shlomo Waser from Sunnyvale. Waser did not respond to a request for comment from J.

On the Sierra Club website, more than 250 upcoming trips are listed, including more than 200 to sites in the United States 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 web pages with information about past trips to Israel were shut down Friday afternoon. A notice appears at the top of the Middle East destinations homepage stating “No trips to the Middle East are currently planned”.

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

An employee of the NDN Collective confirmed that 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.

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

The council informed Owens and the National Exit Team, who “submitted our standard response which states that we are not restricting our travel due to regional disputes or politics,” Owens wrote. “The activist was unhappy and said he planned to involve other activist groups.

“On February 22, the Board received an email from a coalition of activist organizations… threatening that if we did not cancel upcoming trips within the week, they would publicly say that the organization was violating the organizational values ​​she recently deployed.”

Acting executive director Dan Chu, the email says, “has appointed a group to handle the response” and briefed officials on the trip to Israel.

The Chu-appointed task force met with the progressive activists, according to the email, “who insisted there was no room for compromise and reiterated their demand for the cancellation of the trips of ‘here March 7’.

The group “spent the next few days considering the pros and cons of each outcome,” Owens wrote, adding, “the domestic outings team didn’t want to cancel the trips.”

Ultimately, two band members named 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 J.

The decision comes as the Sierra Club, one of the oldest and most influential environmental nonprofits in the United States, has pushed to embed progressive values ​​and language more openly into its mission, including the rhetoric around social justice and anti-racism.

A webpage linked to Owens’ memo includes a guide to “practicing anti-racism at the Sierra Club,” listing the need for “focused and sustained action,” “maintaining accountability,” and “rejecting oppressive norms. internalized race”, among other principles.

On June 17 last year, the organization first announced 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 longtime members of the group see the adoption of social justice concepts as an ideological shift to the left within an organization that has always been a big tent. His decision on Israel reinforced this view.

“It’s a pendulum, and it’s very leaning towards the progressive side of things,” said David Neumann of Oregon, a member of the Jewish Sierra Club since 1968 which organizes outings in California and his home state. .

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

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

“I knew they were really about fairness and justice, just like me, and that’s great,” he said. “But these groups calling Israel an apartheid state – that’s so far away,” he said. “It’s so uncommon. It’s crazy.”

Owens, the president, wrote that she and the Administrative Exit Committee were also “very disappointed with the decision.”

“A terrible precedent has been set,” she wrote, which “has the potential to put other international and domestic travel at risk of being subjected to the same treatment.”