A hiker enjoys Israel's famed Ein Gedi nature preserve. (Photo/Flickr-dgjones CC BY-NC 2.0)
A hiker enjoys Israel's famed Ein Gedi nature preserve. (Photo/Flickr-dgjones CC BY-NC 2.0)

Sierra Club Israel mess never should have happened

On March 11, J. broke the story that the Sierra Club had bowed to anti-Zionist pressure and had canceled its upcoming nature trips to Israel.

Almost immediately, friends of Israel sprang into action. And they did it the right way.

First, alerted by a mass email sent out to hundreds of Sierra Club trip leaders by outings committee volunteer chair Mary Owens, the news spread among club members. Messages began pouring into the group’s Oakland headquarters, excoriating the leadership for making such a misguided decision without input from stakeholders. In emails and on social media, members announced they were canceling their membership in the widely respected environmental advocacy organization.

Then a group of Bay Area Jewish organizations and elected state officials met with Sierra Club leadership on March 14 to express their concerns. As we reported, the club’s leaders listened, learned and decided to reverse course. Israel trips have been reinstated. An apology — of sorts — was issued, via a post on the website.

All is well. Almost.

First, this never should have happened.

A coalition of progressive and anti-Zionist groups was able to exert pressure on the environmental organization so as to convince some of its leaders that trips to the “apartheid” State of Israel were in contradiction with Sierra Club’s social justice values. And without fully investigating the matter, leadership canceled those trips “hastily,” in the organization’s own words. Not just canceled them, but literally erased Israel from the list of destinations on the website, reminiscent of maps where Israel does not appear.

Second, the written apology, while much appreciated, does not go far enough. It explains, and bemoans, the leadership’s lack of knowledge concerning the political realities in Israel and Palestine. Fair enough. But it also suggests that the Sierra Club’s business is environmental education and advocacy, not politics, as if that gets the leaders off the hook for their bad decision.

It doesn’t, any more than the International Olympic Committee should be let off the hook for permitting China to host the just-concluded Winter Games, on the grounds that sports are divorced from politics.

There is always a balance to be considered when following stated goals, be they environmental protection, excellence in sports, or anything else, while ensuring that social justice and human rights are not trampled in the process. This isn’t “politicization,” not if it’s done properly. It’s simply good judgment.

The Sierra Club’s reputation has suffered because of this incident. What is the compensation for the people booked on the Israel trip that should have departed this week? Will they, or anyone else, feel confident signing up for a club trip to Israel in the future? Will those members who have canceled their membership in the organization come back to support it?

More repair needs to be done. We encourage the Sierra Club leadership to continue mending these fences.

J. Editorial Board

The J. Editorial Board pens editorials as the voice of J.