Sierra Club reinstates Israel trips after outcry over decision to nix visits

US environmental group says it made decision ‘hastily’ without enough consultation with outside groups, after being accused of ‘greenwashing’ alleged Israeli crimes

Luke Tress is an editor and a reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

Illustrative: Hikers in northern Israel, February 22, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Illustrative: Hikers in northern Israel, February 22, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The US environmental nonprofit Sierra Club said Tuesday it will reinstate trips to Israel, reversing course after canceling scheduled visits in response to pressure from anti-Zionist and progressive groups, including far-left Jewish activists.

The about-face came after a campaign from mainstream Jewish groups, and comes as the California-based nonprofit seeks to accommodate contemporary racial justice concerns with its 130-year-old environmental mission.

“Recently, the Sierra Club hastily made a decision, without consulting a robust set of stakeholders, to postpone two planned outings to Israel,” the organization said in a statement attributed to Acting Executive Director Dan Chu. “The process that led to this was done in ways that created confusion, anger, and frustration.”

“We do not take positions on foreign policy matters that are beyond that scope. We do not have a deep understanding or knowledge necessary to do so, nor is it our place to do so,” the statement said. The group also committed to combating antisemitism.

The statement said the Sierra Club has offered trips to Israel for nearly a decade, and “we intend to update our schedule soon to offer new outings to Israel later this year.”

In future trips to Israel, the Sierra Club committed to get “input from a wide range of partners” to deepen participants’ understanding of the region.

“By failing to engage all stakeholders, from our members and supporters, to a wide range of allies, traditional and otherwise, we caused deep pain on a personal and spiritual level,” the statement said.

An array of US Jewish groups pushed back after the Sierra Club announced the cancellations last week.

The Jewish Community Relations Councils of San Francisco and Silicon Valley, Jewish Federations of North America, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Hazon environmental group and the California Legislative Jewish Caucus all called on the Sierra Club to reverse the move.

Jewish groups applauded Tuesday’s announcement.

The Jewish Community Relations Council of San Francisco said it was “pleased Sierra Club addressed Jewish community concerns about postponed outings to Israel, and its leadership are working with Jewish organizations on education and growth.”

The group’s director, Tyler Gregory, said, “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.”

“Of equal importance, we cannot allow an existential issue as critical as combating climate change to be derailed by toxic political infighting,” Gregory said.

Ross Macfarlane, the Sierra Club’s vice president, phoned Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center to inform him of the decision, the center said Tuesday.

Macfarlane apologized for the sudden cancellations of trips to Israel, said the visits will continue in the future and denounced the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, the Weisenthal Center said.

BDS activists in New York City, May 15, 2021. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

“We appreciate that the Sierra Club acted quickly to reverse the announced cancellations of trips to Israel which placed the famed American conservation organization directly into the crosshairs of BDS, anti-Israel, and anti-peace zealots,” Cooper said.

The Sierra Club is a national US organization based in California. It had said it was canceling its Israel trips after progressive and anti-Zionist activists accused it of “greenwashing” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Greenwashing” is a term used to anti-Israel activists that accuse the Jewish state of using environmental causes to disguise alleged human rights violations. “Pinkwashing” is a common charge against Israel relating to LGBTQ rights.

The Sierra Club has been striving to widen its scope to include social justice causes, alongside its environmental focus, after the group came under fire in 2020 for allegedly racist statements by its founder, John Muir, a leading environmentalist in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Muir made statements deemed derogatory toward Black and indigenous people, describing other racial groups as “dirty” and “lazy,” for example. Other early Sierra Club figures also held racist views, the group has acknowledged.

“The Sierra Club is a 129-year-old organization with a complex history, some of which has contributed to and certainly reflected those systems of oppression,” the group said.

“While we have made major strides over the past decade in reckoning with and addressing these issues, we still have a very long journey ahead of us to become the anti-racist organization we need to be,” it said.

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