Sierra Club reschedules trips to Israel it canceled under pressure from pro-Palestinian groups

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(J. The Jewish News of Northern California via JTA) — Five months after canceling his 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 next year.

Titled “Natural and Historical Highlights of Israel,” the 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 outings in Israel: snorkeling, bird watching, nights in a kibbutz and a visit to Tel Aviv.

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

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The planned trip 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 wildlife conservation. environment – embroiled in a public controversy that angered prominent Jews. organizations and provoked the intervention of Californian politicians.

Jesse Gabriel, a California Assemblyman 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 the March 11 that the Sierra Club had postponed its trips indefinitely. in Israel at the urging of groups who claimed the Sierra Club was “whitewashing” the conflict. The Sierra Club is headquartered in Oakland.

“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 advocacy group Adalah Justice Project, indigenous rights group the NDN Collective, the Movement for Black Lives coalition and the anti-Zionist group Jewish Voice for Peace.

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, has 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.” The groups later soured after Chu issued a statement on March 15 apologizing for the Sierra Club’s decision, saying it was made “in a hurry” and that further trips to Israel would be offered.” soon” and would involve “the contribution of a wide range of partners”. ”

Internally, the episode created uncertainty and tension within the Sierra Club. Its 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 about further travel to Israel and the difficult feelings it could bring, according to a memo obtained and released by the Adalah Justice Project.

“On Friday, the Sierra Club will announce details of an upcoming outing to Israel and Palestine,” the memo to Sierra Club officials said. “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 group did not respond to requests for comment. But he addressed the Israeli controversy in a public statement last week that situated the episode as part of the Sierra Club’s efforts to examine its own role “in perpetuating white supremacy.”

Founded in 1892, the group was “essentially a mountaineering club for middle- and upper-class whites” in its early days, he has said in previous public statements. Recently, amid a national toll on race, the group made internal changes intended to increase fairness and oppose racism, including rethinking, for example, its reverence for Sierra Club founder John Muir, the early 20th century naturalist. who made derogatory comments about black and aboriginal people.

The Israel travel controversy has become “a critical inflection point on our journey to becoming an organization that fully exemplifies anti-racism, balance, collaboration, justice and transformation,” the Sierra Club said in a statement. a statement released late last week, titled “Towards Just and Transformative Exits.

In the statement, the Sierra Club again apologized for its abrupt decision to cancel the trips, both for derailing the planning that had already taken place by the attendants and participants and because of the anger of “some members of our Jewish community who saw our decision as a political statement.”

The decisions to cancel and then plan new trips “were seen as confrontational, were made in quick succession, and ultimately perpetuated harm and confusion throughout our community, especially our Palestinian, Indigenous, Arab, Middle- Eastern, Muslim and Jewish, volunteers, members and partners,” the statement read. “While we intended to satisfy our diverse and valued partners, our execution provoked an adverse reaction that led us down the path of reparation. and rebuilding with key members of our community – including our volunteers, staff, partners, members and donors – who have been deeply hurt and frustrated not only by the initial journey, but by the non-consultative process that followed.

Pro-Palestinian groups exploded with public statements late last week denouncing what they called the nonprofit’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 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 concerned about the environment,” said ADL Regional Director Seth Brysk. “Learning about Israel through its environment, geology, history, and people provides critical opportunities for rewarding first-hand engagement with the many complex issues that need to be addressed globally.”

The two-week trip is due 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 leader of the trip is Shlomo Waser, an Israeli-born Bay Area resident and lifetime member of the Sierra Club. Waser did not respond to a request for comment. PJC

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