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Mar
22
2022

Tuesday News Bulletin 3/22

Welcome to the Tuesday News Bulletin! Jewish Currents Senior Reporter Alex Kane is constantly getting quotes and scooplets from his network of sources, and every Tuesday, he releases small stories exclusive to our newsletter subscribers in emails like this one. In addition to original reporting, the Tuesday News Bulletin serves as a forum for aggregating stories Alex and other Jewish Currents staffers are tracking, with plenty of links to other publications so you can keep up with everything happening on our beats.

If you have more stories or tips for Alex, you can reach him at alex@jewishcurrents.org.

The Old City of Jerusalem as seen from the Mount of Olives, in East Jerusalem, February 21st, 2022.

Mahmoud Illean/AP

March 22nd, 2022

(note: this Tuesday News Bulletin is a guest post from Jewish Currents contributor Isaac Scher)

On March 15th, Dan Chu, the Sierra Club’s acting executive director, revoked the organization’s decision to cancel two nature tours of Israel under pressure from a coalition of Palestinian rights advocates. In a statement, Chu described the cancellations as “hastily made”; in response to critics who characterize boycotts of Israel as antisemitic, he said the Sierra Club “will continue to loudly condemn anti-semitism and any and all acts of hate.” The organization does not “take positions on foreign policy matters that are beyond that scope,” Chu wrote, adding that the Sierra Club had “taken accountability for the pain and anguish we created” with the decision. Leaders of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the Israel-advocacy organization StandWithUs praised Chu’s about-face. The CEO of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), Jonathan Greenblatt, said he was “encouraged by the conversations I’ve had with @SierraClub leadership over [the] past 24 hours.”

The two conflicting announcements came after three weeks of talks with Palestine advocates and subsequently several days of meetings with Israel advocates. More broadly, the debate within the Sierra Club—one of the most prominent environmental groups in the United States—over how it should approach the question of travel in Israel/Palestine comes after two years in which the organization’s politics have shifted in response to demands from activists. At the height of the uprisings following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, the organization disowned the racism of its founder, the conservationist John Muir. “It’s time to take down some of our own monuments,” wrote Michael Brune, the Sierra Club’s director at the time. In an interview with The New York Times earlier this year, the president of the Sierra Club acknowledged that his home, in Brooklyn, is on “the unceded land of the Canarsee people.”

The activists who campaigned to cancel the organization’s trips to Israel said they sought to align the Sierra Club’s practices with its stated politics. “The Sierra Club will have to decide what its narrative is,” Sumaya Awad, a director of Adalah Justice Project, said after Chu’s reversal. “Will it continue to be an organization rooted in whiteness and an archaic approach to environmental justice? Or is it going to fully adopt this new narrative, that it’s anti-racist and prioritizes indigenous struggles?”

The campaign was inadvertently initiated by Marc Sapir, an 80-year-old Jewish supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement targeting Israel, and a dues-paying member of the Sierra Club, which leads outdoor recreation trips in the US and around the world in addition to lobbying on environmental issues. In January, Sapir received an email from the organization announcing two trips to Israel, one geared toward birdwatchers and the other focused on natural history. He sent Leslie Rider, the senior advisor of the Sierra Club’s Board of Directors, an ultimatum. “If the Sierra Club does not honor the BDS movement aiming to end the outrageous behavior of the Zionist state,” he wrote in an email obtained by Jewish Currents, “I will have to suspend my membership and spread my concerns and outrage to hundreds of other Sierra Club members.”

Rider replied by sharing a letter that she said “the Outings team,” which coordinates the Sierra Club’s trips, had sent to “others who’ve inquired about this issue.” “We agree that the occupation of Palestine is unjust and inhumane,” the letter said. But “a tourism boycott could harm our relationships and ability to work with our partners on other projects. We do not compromise our values or policies in the name of an alliance, but we do consider the impact of all our actions.”

After receiving Rider’s email, Sapir alerted Adalah-New York to the Sierra Club’s trips, sparking its campaign. He also wrote to Mazin Qusmiyeh, an environmental scientist at Bethlehem University, in the hopes that the input of a Palestinian expert living in the West Bank might sway the Sierra Club to end its outings. “Reconsider this trip,” Qusmiyeh wrote to Rider in an email obtained by Jewish Currents. At the same time, if the Sierra Club insisted on moving ahead with the trip, he offered to help arrange tours of the West Bank for the participants. “If the trip goes through despite the moral and conscienscious objections you received from members of the Sierra Club and others like us, it is essential that the participants experience life of indiginous people [sic] and nature on the ‘other side’ of the literal and metaphysical apartheid wall,” he wrote. Rider replied with a form letter in which she said the leaders of the Sierra Club would “take your feedback into consideration for the future.”

Like the campaigners, Qusmiyeh said in an interview that the trips “greenwash” the Israeli state project, obscuring “environmental destruction through green terminology.” According to an itinerary of one of the Sierra Club’s tours, the trips are primarily confined to nature reserves and other historic attractions, and do not venture into areas that illustrate the environmental degradation borne of Israeli dominion over Palestinian land. “The Sierra Club needs to see how Israelis are devastating our environment,” Qusmiyeh told Jewish Currents. “They need to see how the state has diverted the water of the Jordan Valley, and how it dumps genotoxic chemicals on Palestinian land.” That, he explained, is why he not only argued that the trips should be canceled, but urged the Sierra Club to include a visit to the West Bank in its itinerary should they go ahead. (Though the itinerary includes visits to Israeli-occupied areas in the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem, it makes no mention of their status as occupied land.)

On February 22nd, the Sierra Club received a letter from Adalah-New York demanding the cancellation of the trips, signed by the Movement for Black Lives, the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, the Indigenous rights group NDN Collective, Jewish Voice for Peace, Palestinian Youth Movement, Adalah Justice Project, and EyeWitness Palestine. “By promoting a false image of Israel as environmentally-friendly,” the coalition wrote, “these trips erase both the existence of the Palestinian people and Israel’s systemic racism and discrimination against them, and greenwash Israel’s system of apartheid and its illegal colonization of occupied Palestinian and Syrian lands.”

A week later, the coalition of activists met with a committee of about five members of the Sierra Club staff, appointed by Chu and including several senior leaders within the organization, according to a person familiar with the discussions. “The committee’s engagement was honest and serious,” the source, who requested anonymity to maintain their working relationships, told Jewish Currents. “They wanted to live up to the Sierra Club’s anti-racism.” Two weeks later, on March 11th, the Sierra Club canceled the trips. It didn’t publicize the decision, but the chair of the organization’s National Outings team, which coordinates trips, wrote an email about the decision to hundreds of Sierra Club volunteers, which was quickly leaked to The Jewish News of Northern California.

On the day the Sierra Club suspended the trips, the committee and the coalition met again, according to the source. The activists offered to help the Sierra Club handle blowback from the Jewish establishment, and explore the possibilities for ethical tourism in the region.

Even as the Sierra Club remained in contact with Palestinian rights activists, the organization also began to hear from Israel-advocacy groups. Days after the trips were canceled, politicians and Jewish establishment leaders urged the Sierra Club to reverse its decision in a virtual meeting, The Jewish News of Northern California reported. Two members of the California state legislature pressured the organization, as did the ADL, the AJC, and the Jewish Community Relations Council. Jewish groups also publicly criticized the decision: On March 14th, the ADL characterized the cancellations as “validating and emboldening a campaign that seeks to undermine and demonize Israel’s legitimacy,” and the Simon Wiesenthal Center called the Sierra Club “an antisemitic polluter.” The next day, the organization reversed its decision on the trips.

The Sierra Club has not contacted the coalition since reinstating its trips, the source said. The Sierra Club did not respond to press inquiries from Jewish Currents.

Awad argued that if the Sierra Club hopes to continue leading tours in the land between the river and the sea, it should look to the example of EyeWitness Palestine, one of the members of the coalition, which has long convened delegations to the West Bank. Its tours focus on particular themes, from political economy to Palestinian and Israeli relations to the land, and are guided by Palestinians and Israelis who are committed to a just solution in the region. A Jewish staffer at the Sierra Club, granted anonymity to protect their employment, also praised EyeWitness’s tours of the region. “I’ve heard of people who’ve gone on trips with them, and they’ve said it’s changed their life,” the staffer toldJewish Currents. “The Sierra Club has done the same thing domestically, leading delegations called ‘Toxic Tours’ that show people the effects of pollution. There is a kind of tourism that leads to change and dignity for the people who are being visited.”

Oren Ziv/Activestills

On March 15th, Palestinian families and their supporters protested in front of the Israeli Supreme Court in Jerusalem during the final hearing on Israel's plans to expel over 1,000 residents living on their lands in Masafer Yatta (also known as the South Hebron Hills), in the southern West Bank. For decades, the Palestinian residents have been subjected to Israeli demolitions, raids, and arrests and have had their lands declared a "military firing zone" in an attempt to cleanse the area for the benefit of Israeli settlers.

As part of the Tuesday News Bulletin, Jewish Currents is publishing a photograph taken by members of Activestills every week, archiving ongoing dispossession and resistance from the river to the sea. You can find more information on this collaboration here.

Here’s what else we’re tracking:
  • Engaging in campaign politics for the first time, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has endorsed 37 Republican members of Congress who voted not to certify Joe Biden as the winner of the 2020 presidential election. “This is no moment for the pro-Israel movement to become selective about its friends,” the president and the CEO of AIPAC wrote to their members on Friday. “When we launched our political action committee last year, we decided that we would base decisions about political contributions on only one thing: whether a political candidate supports the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

  • A Palestinian American athletic trainer filed a federal discrimination charge against the Agnes Irwin School, Philadelphia’s premier K-12 school for girls, which fired for her years-old social media posts criticizing Israel. She was fired after 10 days on the job after parents complained about her posts, which were first publicized by Canary Mission, a right-wing website that doxxes strong critics of Israel. In 2016, she tweeted that “Israel doesn’t have a right to exist” and, among other things, that Zionists will “rot in fking hell.” Her lawyer, from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said that her firing violated the Civil Rights Act and Pennsylvania’s Human Relations Act.

  • Israeli state and settler violence spiked in the West Bank in 2021, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) reported Thursday. The Israeli military carried out 7,656 operations—a “record-high number,” the agency said. Sparked by Israel’s displacement of Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem, a Palestinian uprising last May contested Israel’s vise over the occupied territories and their Palestinian residents. UNRWA’S research, which finds Palestinian injuries and Israeli use of munitions up relative to recent years, punctuates the innumerable accounts of Israel’s recent violence. For instance, according to UNRWA, last year the Israeli military was “far more likely” to fire live bullets during raids of refugee camps than elsewhere.

  • A worker at Google says she faced retaliation for contesting the corporation’s $1.2 billion contract with Amazon Web Services and the Israeli military. “No Tech for Apartheid,” a campaign of Google and Amazon workers who oppose the contract, was launched last autumn, following Israel’s violence across the region in May 2021. The worker, who developed the campaign’s literature, says that she was called into a meeting with her boss, who told her the company was moving her to Brazil. She was given 17 business days to affirm that she would move from San Francisco to São Paulo, on pain of termination. (Google denies her charge of retaliation.)

  • The Supreme Court of Israel is scheduled to hear a case next week that will decide whether to displace 38 Palestinian families in Al-Wajala, a village on the periphery of occupied East Jerusalem. The Palestinian residents have for decades been prohibited from building on their land, and Israel routinely razes Palestinian acreage there. Jerusalem’s planning committee recently rejected the residents’ own plan for their village, arguing that the village holds “great scenic and environmental value” for Israel. On Friday, 50 lawmakers in the US House of Representatives, all Democrats, called on Secretary of State Antony Blinken to stop Israel’s planned expulsion of the residents. “The destruction and displacement of this community would run counter to the values shared by the U.S. and Israel, while further undermining long-term Israeli security, Palestinian dignity, and prospects for peace,” the members wrote in a letter to Blinken. “[W]e request that you work with the Israeli government to immediately halt demolitions in al-Walaja.”