The shocking cancellation of an environmental Israel tour

Bird watching was on the agenda for the cancelled Sierra Club Israel tour. (screeshot/ via Jewish News)
Bird watching was on the agenda for the cancelled Sierra Club Israel tour. (screeshot/ via Jewish News)

This is a morality tale, but I am afraid it does not have a good ending.

Gabe Stutman, a journalist with J Weekly, which serves the San Francisco community, has written an astonishing story: how one unnamed Jewish activist, together with a gaggle of “woke” climate campaigners and anti-Zionist groups, has managed to stop America’s Sierra Club from running its regular tours to Israel.

If you know nothing about Sierra Club, and I didn’t, it is a national environmental group which for years has offered trips to Israel, among many other world destinations. The trips are not cheap — $5,000 per person — but they are said to be wonderfully rewarding. They offer the opportunity over two weeks to explore Israel’s diverse geography and wildlife. Last year’s trip, says Stutman, included “birdwatching, sea snorkeling, a visit to the Dead Sea and evenings on a kibbutz,” taking participants the length and breadth of the country.

But, according to Stutman’s worryingly detailed story, this innocuous state of affairs has been permanently disrupted because activists accused Sierra Club of “greenwashing the conflict” and “providing legitimacy to the Israeli state, which is engaged in apartheid against the Palestinian people”.

“Greenwashing”, in case you didn’t know, is a term used to describe Israel using its “good” behaviour on environmental issues to disguise its “bad” behaviour on the Palestinian issue.

Mary Owens, the chair of Sierra Club’s National Outings team, delivered the news of the cancellation in an email to the hundreds of volunteers who regularly lead the trips around the world. She told them that the first approach came from “a Jewish-American activist” in late January.

He it was who levelled the charge of greenwashing. Sierra Club told him to take a hike: it did not, it said, “restrict our trips due to regional conflicts or politics”. Among its more than 250 upcoming tours there are planned trips to China, Malaysia, and Nepal.

But this was not good enough for the activist, who said he was not satisfied and planned to get additional activist groups involved.

“On February 22, the board received an email from a coalition of activist organisations … threatening that if we did not cancel the upcoming trips within a week, they would go public that the organisation was violating the organisational values it recently rolled out,” Owens wrote.

One can only imagine the discussions within Sierra Club on the receipt of this second email. Its leadership sought a meeting with the activists, by now identified as “pro-Palestinian Adalah Justice Project, the Indigenous rights group the NDN Collective, the Campaign for the Boycott of Israel, Jewish Voice for Peace, the Sunrise Movement and the Movement for Black Lives”.

This group of charmers told Sierra Club, which did not want to cancel the trips, that “there was no room for compromise”. After some days of discussions, Sierra Club capitulated. Israel — even reports of its previous trips — no longer exists on the organisation’s website.

In her email to the volunteers, Mary Owens, who said that she and the Outings team were “very disappointed with the decision,” added: “a terrible precedent has been set, that can potentially put other international as well as domestic trips at risk of being subjected to the same treatment.”

Of the more loathsome aspects of this story, the one I am sorely repelled by is that not one of these fabulously progressive people was prepared to defend their actions to JWeekly. We still don’t know the name of the solo activist who put Sierra Club’s metaphorical feet to the fire with his ideological purity test.

But in any case, this story has a concerning lesson for us here in the UK. The domino effect of just a couple of emails and an aggressive meeting has resulted in Israel being written out of an environmental club’s history. Think it couldn’t happen here? Think again.





About the Author
Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist.