A man hiking the Israel National Trail, which traverses the full length of the country. (Photo/iancorless.com via Israel21c)
A man hiking the Israel National Trail, which traverses the full length of the country. (Photo/iancorless.com via Israel21c)

Sierra Club opens registration for Israel trips, after canceling under pressure

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

Called “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 Israel outings: snorkeling, bird watching, nights on a kibbutz and visit to Tel Aviv.

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

The news is the latest development in a saga that saw one of the country’s oldest and most influential environmental groups — which traditionally avoids politics in favor of a big-tent approach to environmental conservation — embroiled in a public controversy that drew ire from large Jewish organizations and prompted urgent intervention from California politicians. The Sierra Club is headquartered in Oakland.

Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel, who chairs the California Legislative Jewish Caucus, joined a virtual meeting with Sierra Club Executive Director Dan Chu along with other members of the caucus after J. broke the story March 11 that the Sierra Club had indefinitely postponed its trips to Israel at the urging of groups who claimed Sierra Club was “greenwashing” the conflict.

“It immediately caught my attention, as it did for a number of my colleagues in the [caucus],” Gabriel said. “A lot of us do work in the environmental space and have good relationships 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 leadership in March and said he was “encouraged” by those conversations. “Experiencing Israel through its environment, geology, history and people does not negate, nor ‘greenwash,’ the pressing reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he wrote in an open letter to Chu.

Among the organizations that urged Sierra Club leadership to scrap its planned Israel outings were the U.S.-based Palestinian advocacy 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.

The groups leveled claims that Sierra Club was supporting an apartheid regime and providing cover for Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians by celebrating its environmental stewardship. Sierra Club, in general, has said it does not get involved in foreign policy matters, and it offers outings to a host of countries from Tanzania to China.

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

Internally, the debate created uncertainty and tension within the Sierra Club. Leadership was split on the decision, which alienated some longtime members and volunteer leaders.

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

Sierra Club last week warned its employees about its pending decision in the days leading up to it, according to a note obtained and published by the Adalah Justice Project. The note, which directed questions to National Program Director Michael Bosse, was addressed to Sierra Club managers: “On Friday Sierra Club will announce details of an upcoming outing to Israel and Palestine. We have created optional spaces tomorrow and Friday to equip managers to support their teams and support people on their teams as well as managers who have identities related to Palestine and Israel.”

The decision to postpone was met with confusion, disappointment and frustration from many members of our community.

Sierra Club saw the controversy over its Israel trips as tied to internal conversations surrounding 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 states, rethinking, for example, its veneration of Sierra Club founder John Muir, the turn-of-the-20th-century naturalist who made derogatory comments about Black and Indigenous people. In the group’s early years, the post said, the Sierra Club was “basically a mountaineering club for middle and upper-class white people.”

The controversy borne in March became “a critical inflection point in our journey to becoming an organization that fully illustrates anti-racism, balance, collaboration, justice and transformation,” the Sierra Club said in a statement published late last week, titled “Toward Just and Transformative Outings.” 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 participants who had already spent money and devoted time to prepare. The statement also referenced damage control that the nonprofit was forced to do both externally and internally.

“The decision to postpone was met with confusion, disappointment and frustration from many members of our community,” the undated and unsigned statement read. “Our volunteer leaders who had been planning this trip for over a year, the trip participants who had already committed resources and time to the trip, and some of our Jewish community members who perceived our decision as a political statement, leading us to reinstate for March 2023 and commit to a reevaluation of future itineraries.”

The statement went on to say that the Sierra Club regretted the “adverse reaction” experienced by some community members, which prompted “a path of repairing and rebuilding.” Some of its constituents, including volunteers, staff and donors, were “deeply harmed and frustrated” both by the “original trip” to Israel, it said, and by the “non-consultative process that ensued.”

Snubbed by Sierra Club, pro-Palestinian groups exploded with public statements late last week excoriating what it called the nonprofit’s “apartheid tours.”

“In February, we demanded Sierra Club cancel Israel outings greenwashing Israeli colonization and its disastrous impact on the Palestinian people,” a joint statement from the Adalah Justice Project and the NDN Collective read. “Sierra Club canceled two trips but backtracked after pressure from racist anti-Palestinian groups.

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

Along with Jewish Voice for Peace, the groups urged a mass social-media campaign to push back at the Sierra Club on Instagram and Twitter. “Demand that Sierra Club cancel their upcoming apartheid tours!” an Instagram post from Adalah said. “There can be no environmental justice without Indigenous sovereignty and Indigenous people leading the way,” another post read.

The San Francisco–based office of the ADL welcomed the news, as did the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, which has worked closely with Sierra Club since early March and continues to meet with Jewish Sierra Club members.

“As the itinerary highlights, Israel is rich in history and home to many natural wonders and initiatives of interest to anyone who is concerned about the environment,” said Seth Brysk, the ADL’s S.F.-based regional director, in a statement to J. “Experiencing Israel through its environment, geology, history and people provides essential opportunities for first-hand enriching engagement into the many complex issues that must be globally addressed.”

“We’re thankful the Sierra Club is fulfilling its promise to the community,” added JCRC CEO Tye Gregory. “Yet the work isn’t done. In our ongoing discussions with Jewish Sierra Club members, including those leading their Outings program to Israel, there is consensus that the organization needs to develop a deeper understanding of both Jewish identity and our community’s relationship to Israel.”

The two-week trip is scheduled to depart 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 up Masada and a visit to Eilat, one of the world’s most important stop-over 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 Shlomo Waser, a Bay Area resident. Waser did not respond to a request for comment.

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is the news editor of J. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.