Ford Foundation still funding anti-Israel groups

Thousands of activists from around the world who called Israel "racist" and "apartheid" demonstrate at the NGO Forum during the 2001 U.N. anti-racism conference in Durban.  (Julian Voloj )

Thousands of activists from around the world who called Israel “racist” and “apartheid” demonstrate at the NGO Forum during the 2001 U.N. anti-racism conference in Durban. (Julian Voloj )

NEW YORK (JTA) – In August 2001, Israel became a punching bag for several thousand human rights activists from throughout the world who were gathered for a U.N anti-racism conference in Durban, South Africa.

But while the Jewish state may have been the target, the Ford Foundation also ultimately suffered a serious black eye after it emerged that many of the anti-Israel activists in Durban were egged on by Ford-backed, pro-Palestinian groups.

Hoping to head off a similar debacle, Ford says it will not pay for any organization to participate in the first follow-up conference to Durban, slated for April in Geneva.

This announcement comes nearly five years after Ford, America’s second-largest philanthropic institution, adopted what experts describe as the most stringent guidelines on grantees.

Yet despite such steps and the foundation’s public criticisms of what transpired seven years ago, Ford today is funding several organizations that engage in the “Durban strategy” – a two-pronged tactic launched at the ‘01 conference to paint Israel as a “racist, apartheid” state and isolate the Jewish nation through boycotts, divestment and sanctions.

The Ford slice of funds to anti-Israel nongovernmental organizations may pale compared to that provided by Europe and its myriad governmental agencies. But the Ford funding enables the groups to wage low-key, diplomatic and economic warfare against Israel, dragging the Palestinian conflict from the battlefield into international forums, media, the Internet and college campuses.

These revelations are the result of a months-long JTA investigation into Ford funding after the highly influential foundation revised its guidelines under pressure from the U.S. Congress.

The pressure followed an October 2003 JTA expose, “Funding Hate”, which found that Ford funneled millions of dollars to pro-Palestinian NGOs, enabling them to promote their vitriolic agenda against Israel in Durban. The NGO Forum, which accompanied the official gathering of countries, issued a lengthy document, including passages containing some of the most provocative attacks on Israel ever produced under the umbrella of the United Nations.

Despite the revised guidelines, Ford appears unable – or unwilling – to prevent some of its grantees from lending support to the movement that was launched in Durban.

The new JTA investigation, which examined a large cross-section of Ford grantees that speak out on the Middle East conflict, finds that several signed a major 2005 boycott and divestment petition against “Apartheid Israel.”

Signatories agreed they were “inspired by the struggle of South Africans against apartheid, and in the spirit of international solidarity, moral consistency and resistance to injustice and oppression.”

As Ford was announcing its decision not to support the 2009 anti-racism forum, its Web site touted a 2008-09 grant for $305,000 to the Arab NGO Network for Development, which features a map on its Web site that fails to note the existence of Israel. One of the two Palestinian members on its coordination committee is the pro-boycott Palestinian NGO Network, or PNGO, a key organizer at Durban.

Although PNGO is no longer receiving grants from Ford, which has assets above $13 billion and gives away more than $500 million annually, the network works closely with at least three Ford grantee organizations.

Ford does not support groups that solely advocate boycotts, but signing onto a boycott or divestment effort is not itself a deal breaker for foundation funding, according to Ford’s vice president of communications, Marta Tellado.

Tellado said there are no concrete red lines.

“We don’t have a glossary of terms that are not allowed,” she said. “It’s not about the specific use of a word, but we look at the totality of that organization, if their activities as a whole still reflect our values and mission.”

Tellado said the foundation never supported the anti-apartheid movement against South Africa, but it recognizes that “historically, boycott is seen as a legitimate, nonviolent means of expression.”

”We don’t think the idea of a boycott can be generalized to mean it’s aimed at the destruction of a country,” Tellado said. “But we understand that it’s a flashpoint” in the conflict today.

Ford says it monitors its grantees, but would not provide any details of the groups it has cut off or how many.

With preparations under way for the follow-up U.N. World Conference Against Racism in Geneva, there are strong indications that Israel again will be singled out for opprobrium.

Tellado said the Ford Foundation, which was endowed with funds donated by Henry and Edsel Ford but no longer maintains any ties to the Ford Motor Co., wants no part of it.

“Experience totally informs our decision,” she said. “This reflects our concern for the meeting’s ability to be constructive.”

This and other steps – like severing relations with several zealous NGOs – garner Ford praise from even its toughest critics.

After JTA revealed the Ford-Durban link in 2003, Ford issued its new guidelines for grantees.

Experts say the revisions were the most extensive seen in philanthropic circles. They elicited howls of free-speech infringement from the American Civil Liberties Union and a slew of top U.S. universities.

Under the guidelines, Ford grantees must agree not to “carry on propaganda” or “promote or engage in violence, terrorism, bigotry or the destruction of any State, nor will it make subgrants to any entity that engages in these activities.”

Although no Ford grantee was linked to terrorism per se, some appeared to condone violence and terror. Ford has since stopped directly funding those groups.

Yet JTA has uncovered several grantees that engage in the twin “Israel is apartheid” and “boycott and divest” campaigns.

“That is the essence of the Durban strategy: demonize and delegitimize Israel to the degree that it gains no external support and eventually is unable to function,” said Gerald Steinberg, the executive director of the Jerusalem-based NGO Monitor.

“I wouldn’t say this is a strong, consistent pattern, but it’s more than minor leakage. Ford should take a more proactive approach so its monies are not abused.”

Beneficiaries of Ford funds include:

* Al-Mezan Center for Human Rights ; Muwatin: Palestinian Institute for the Study of Democracy; The Palestinian Center for Human Rights; and Miftah: The Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy. All these groups signed onto boycott and divestment petitions against “Apartheid Israel.”

Miftah has an online archive with dozens of articles painting Israel as an “apartheid” regime. The Palestinian Center for Human Rights’ online archive provides dozens of opinions and documents that paint Israel as an apartheid regime, topped by its own “Fact Sheet: Settlements and Apartheid in the OPT” that describes Jewish settlements as “the cornerstone of a system of de facto Apartheid.” In its “How to Help” section, the center urges readers to join the “Palestine Solidarity Campaign,” a global network that pushes the boycott and divestment campaign, and to “invest ethically,” citing as a model the Methodist Church’s efforts to push for divestment from companies that do business with Israel.

* Al Haq: Law in the Service of Man. The West Bank affiliate of the International Commission of Jurists in Geneva in the “Goals and Objectives” section of its Web page cites “participation in civil society discourse and activities regarding divestment, boycott, and sanctions.” Last July it urged the U.N. General Assembly to recall the “political, economic, military and cultural isolation of South Africa” as “such measures must be considered in relation to Israel.”

* The Arab NGO Network for Development. Its Web site (www.annd.org) prominently features a section called “Eye on Gaza” with links to 10 related documents. Among them are an article titled “The Israeli Recipe for 2008: Genocide in Gaza” and a March news release of the Euro-Mediterranean NGO Platform – another Ford grantee – accusing Israel of “massacres,” “war crimes” and “genocide.”

Observers say that the activities of some Ford grantees point to the challenge that any huge, decentralized organization faces in monitoring its partners. Ford boasts 4,000 grantees around the world.

The issue may boil down to Ford’s interpretation of what terms such as “promote” or “bigotry” or “propaganda” mean, as stated in their guidelines.

The guidelines also appear to offer some latitude: “Because we appreciate the important work that our grantees do around the world, some in extremely difficult environments, we strive to fulfill our oversight responsibilities without creating undue burdens for them or being unduly intrusive into their affairs.”

It’s not a loophole that allows for propaganda, said Tellado, adding that Ford is “troubled” by the rhetoric of some NGOs. Ford officials, however, declined to specify which rhetoric in particular concerned them.

“We’re not in the business of censorship because that flies in the face of our values,” she said. “Having said that, you really do need to monitor because words do matter. We realize there is a lot of hyperbole bandied about and not backed up by fact.”

For their part, the Ford-funded NGOs say branding Israel “apartheid” is one way to “raise awareness” globally.

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The Palestinian Center for Human Rights received a two-year, $370,000 Ford grant for 2005-07 “for a program of legal advocacy and defense of human rights and the rule of law and promotion of democratic processes in Gaza.”

Even Steinberg of NGO Monitor praises the rights group for being one of the rare Palestinian organizations to condemn various abuses committed by the Palestinian authorities and police.

But in November 2006, the center also issued an “action alert” in which it joined with the Grassroots Palestinian Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign – a network devoted to the boycott movement – in calling on the world to hold “Apartheid Israel” accountable for its “war crimes.”

Jaber Wishah, the Palestinian Center’s deputy director, told JTA that by employing the term apartheid, “we are trying to raise awareness of the illegal and brutal behavior of the Israeli occupying force and the very discriminatory policies that the Israeli judicial system provides cover for.”

“The strategy of boycotts and divestment should be adopted to put an end to the Israeli policy of discrimination,” he said in a phone interview from Gaza City.

Joharah Baker, an editorial writer for Miftah, another Ford grantee, concedes that equating Israel with South Africa is not quite accurate, as “no two situations are exactly the same.” But many comparisons can be drawn, she said – the separation between the two peoples, and also separating Palestinians from Palestinians.

“I think the goal behind drawing these comparisons is that while everyone knew about apartheid South Africa and condemned it, this is where the Palestinians are at a disadvantage: Israel claims to be a democracy and refuses to admit that it’s an illegal occupation,” Baker said, speaking from her office in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

“Once there’s such a well-known comparison, people can draw those parallels and it becomes much more tangible in their mind,” she said. “It’s not that we’re misusing the term or that Palestinians misuse the term. I’m saying it’s very apartheid-like because of the nature of the conflict.”

The Ford-Durban link

The Ford Foundation, with its mission to “strengthen democratic values, reduce poverty and injustice, promote international cooperation, and advance human achievement,” through its Cairo office has provided more than $200 million over the past half-century to some 350 NGOs in the Middle East.

So perhaps it was natural that Ford would support so many groups attending the landmark Durban meeting.

Most of the media attention went to the accompanying NGO Forum in Durban, which attracted thousands of activists from around the world, aimed the harshest rhetoric at Israel alone and inspired several incidents of anti-Jewish epithets and the distribution of anti-Semitic literature.

The extremism sparked a walkout by the American and Israeli delegations.

But the real story, in retrospect, was the launch of the current “Israel is apartheid” movement.

In that Durban NGO document – mostly rejected by U.N. member-states during their official conference that followed – plotters unveiled a game plan: “Complete and total isolation of Israel as an apartheid state, as was done in the case of South Africa … sanctions, embargoes, the full cessation of all links (diplomatic, economic, social, and military cooperation and training) between all states and Israel,” coupled with “condemnation of those states supporting, aiding, and abetting the Israeli apartheid state, and its perpetration of racist crimes against humanity, including ethnic cleansing and acts of genocide.”

Ford’s vital funding of the Durban ringleaders helped re-inject terms like “apartheid,” “boycott” and “divestment” into mainstream discourse about Israel.

The foundation’s then-president, Susan Berresford, apologized for Ford’s role in Durban in a Nov. 17, 2003 letter to U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) on the heels of the four-part JTA investigation “Funding Hate.”

“We now recognize that we did not have a clear picture of the activities, organizations and people involved,” Berresford wrote. “We deeply regret that Foundation grantees may have taken part in unacceptable behavior in Durban.”

In 2003, Ford initially denied to JTA that any anti-Israel agitation or anti-Semitic activities took place in Durban. But as Nadler and 20 other U.S. lawmakers pressed for an investigation, and groups including the American Jewish Congress threatened a lawsuit, Ford reversed itself.

Berresford’s letter to Nadler stated that Ford officials were “disgusted by the vicious anti-Semitic activity seen at Durban,” and vowed, “If the Foundation finds allegations of bigotry and incitement of hatred by particular grantees to be true … we will cease funding.”

Ford’s revised guidelines, produced in November 2003 with input from Nadler’s office and Jewish groups, altered a longstanding hands-off policy for its grantees and annual allocations worldwide.

“The fact they were making much clearer what was acceptable and not acceptable was unusual in the world of philanthropy,” said Stacy Palmer, the editor of The Chronicle of Philanthropy. “Grant-makers usually give for a project – ‘that’s what I’d like to see’ – and those are the only restrictions on grantees.”

Not surprisingly, the altered guidelines generated grumbling not only from certain grantees but also from some former Ford employees and critics on the left.

The Nation in a May 2006 piece “Target Ford” swiped at the “vague, sweeping language” and cited the concerns of Ford-supported universities – Harvard, Columbia and Stanford – that it could quash “protected speech” on their campus, even in their classrooms.

Scott Sherman, the author, quoted “a former high-ranking Ford employee” who “noted with dismay” – and somewhat conspiratorially – that Berresford “is very tough and principled, so they must have really twisted her arm to get her to put in that new grant language.”

Ford denies anything was imposed. Rather, according to foundation officials, the guidelines simply “reflect Ford values.”

“We took what had been our implicit values and made them explicit because apparently, they weren’t fully understood,” Ford spokesman Alfred Ironside told JTA during a recent interview at the foundation’s Manhattan offices.

Nadler said the Ford policy has become a “benchmark” for the philanthropic and human-rights world.

“In the face of that substantial pressure, Ford had stood strong, re-articulated their values and forcefully asserted their rights to deny funding to those organizations that violate their essential principles,” Nadler told JTA. “They should be lauded for that.”

Nevertheless, the perception lingers that Ford “buckled” under pressure from Jewish lawmakers and activists, with Berresford’s denial “a bit disingenuous,” said Pablo Eisenberg, a senior fellow at Georgetown’s Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership.

After Ford’s role in the Durban conference was highlighted and the foundation tightened its grantee guidelines, it also doled out millions to assorted Jewish organizations. (See sidebar.)

These grants fulfilled a prediction made to JTA in January 2004 by Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

“At the end of the day,” he said, “I assume they will fund some project submitted to them by a mainstream Jewish organization.”

ADL received $1.1 million soon after.

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Ford had been criticized for funding very few Jewish projects. Eisenberg said this burst of generosity was at least partly aimed to placate.

“Clearly, Ford bent over backwards to fund some Jewish groups it had not previously supported after the brouhaha,” he said.

Foxman said that Ford dollars wouldn’t discourage him from chastising, if necessary.

“One criticism of Ford was that they neglected the Jewish community,” he said. “So now they’re going to be criticized of what, buying the Jewish community? You can’t have it both ways.”

Ford also earned kudos for its decision in February 2006 to withdraw support for an American Association of University Professors conference in Italy after The New York Sun revealed that some one-third of expected participants had publicly supported boycotts of Israeli universities.

Then came this most recent move to distance itself from the 2009 follow-up to Durban, which instead will be held in Geneva on U.N. grounds, where security and protocol can be more effectively controlled.

Yet a re-examination of that initial Berresford letter along with recent interviews with current Ford officials suggest that Ford’s rejection of groups that incite terror and anti-Semitism does not extend to the boycott and divestment movement.

Ford and some of its current grantees have hardly shied away from controversial topics.

PNGO was one of the more notorious Durban ringleaders and continues to circle within the Ford orbit. Its relations with several current Ford grantees raises questions about whether some funds Ford gives to groups associated with the Palestinian NGO Network might end up supporting PNGO in some way.

PNGO, according to JTA’s 2003 series, had received $1.4 million from Ford over the years.

Ford’s online grant database is transparent, with all awards since 2004 easily accessible. What is not clear is when or why a particular group that once was funded no longer is.

Ford officials declined to cite specifics, but they did say that overall their number of grantees has declined.

PNGO, meanwhile, is heavily involved with two of the prime campaigns associated with the boycott, divestment and sanctions movements, known as BDS: the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel and the Grassroots Palestinian Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign. The latter recently won U.N. accreditation to attend the 2009 anti-racism forum.

These two groups, along with PNGO, headlined a Nov. 22 conference on boycott and divestment strategy held in Ramallah.

PNGO’s advice to participants at the conference on how to publicly describe their objectives is on its Web site.

This advice is also revealing in light of Ford’s revised guidelines: “Emphasize that the BDS campaign does not only target Israel’s economy, but challenges Israel’s legitimacy, being a colonial and apartheid state, as part of the international community. Therefore, efforts are needed not only to promote wide consumer boycotts, but also boycotts in the fields of academia, culture and sports.”

PNGO, in turn, is tight with at least three current Ford grantees. It is a coordinating committee member of the Arab NGO Network for Development; an executive board member of the Euro-Mediterranean NGO Platform (the Arab NGO Network is also a member); and is associated with Muwatin, which it thanked online for lending a hand with the November strategy conference in Ramallah.

In addition to giving $305,000 to the Arab NGO Network, Ford awarded $45,000 in 2005-07 to the Euro-Mediterranean network. The group, which is fiercely critical of Israel, received the funds not specifically to oppose Israel but “to translate its reports, news bulletins and meeting documents into Arabic for dissemination in the Middle East and North Africa,” according to the Ford grant database.

It also received $150,000 for 2007-08 “to strengthen the role of civil society in protecting and promoting the human rights of migrants and asylum seekers in North Africa and the Middle East.”

As for Muwatin, which signed a key May 2005 boycott petition, it landed $180,000 from Ford for 2006-07 “for policy studies and research to inform debate on issues of democracy, Islamism and secularism and for public education on the performance of the Palestinian Legislative Council,” the Palestinian parliament.

It also received $200,000 for 2006-08 “for policy research to inform public debate on democracy, Islamism and secularism and for a training and awards program for young social science researchers.”

Even if money is not given specifically to bash Israel, NGO workers often speak of “fungibility” – that money given from one donor, for one specific purpose, frees up money for NGOs to use for another purpose.

With all the intertwined relationships among Palestinian NGOs, it’s unclear if any of the Ford money that helps keep these three grantees afloat in some way also helps sustain the PNGO network.

Ironside, the Ford spokesman, said the lines were clear.

“Ford grants are made for specific purposes, and we require a strict accounting of how funds are applied to grant-specific work,” he said.

Meanwhile, the words and actions of some direct beneficiaries continue to catch the eye of watchdogs like Steinberg, whose NGO Monitor was established after Durban by the conservative think tank Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

In a Mideast conflict that also battles for the hearts and minds of interested observers around the world, some of these NGOs – while focused mostly on human rights and other activities – also bang a steady drumbeat of extreme accusations against Israel.

In many cases, the litany of charges are boilerplate, as if lifted from talking points: collective punishment and disproportionate use of force, ethnic cleansing and breach of international law.

Additionally, there are the accusations of “apartheid” or endorsement of boycotts. For some NGOs it’s not mentioned often – just enough to indicate where their values lie.

Steinberg says that for activists, journalists or news junkies who click on these Web sites, such words are likely to incite strong feelings – even hatred or bigotry – toward the Jewish state.

Consider the college student learning more about the conflict but not yet inclined to weigh two sides of a story.

“These are not insignificant activities because you create a public image by repeating the same claims over and over again, where Israel is always being accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity,” said Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University, itself a target of academic boycotts for its “complicity” in Israeli policies against Palestinians.

“It’s propaganda,” he said, “and it’s a branding of Israel in a very negative way.”

Steinberg himself is often accused by Ford and New Israel Fund defenders of being ideologically motivated to “cherry-pick” and exaggerate the evidence to discredit pro-Palestinian NGOs – and stifle any criticism of Israeli actions.

“It is true that the Ford Foundation and NIF fund many constructive NGOs that do not promote a radical political or anti-Israel agenda,” he said. “But the very major impact of the destructive NGOs” – in submissions to the United Nations, news releases, reports, etc. – “is not offset or balanced in any way by the activities of the constructive NGOs.”

Monitoring grantees

To monitor its grantees, Ford says it conducts random Web site checks and responds to specific complaints from peers in the field, lawmakers and other respected figures.

The next step is internal discussion of a case, said Tellado, the Ford vice president. The discussion is placed within the broader context of the NGO’s goals and activities, and if the case distracts from the central mission Ford has funded.

This may be followed by a “conversation” with the grantee, she said: “You signed the letter, you’re aware of our values, are you sure you want this on your Web site?”

If Ford deems it necessary, Tellado said, the foundation will sever, freeze or even recover funding.

“These tools are available to us, and we have used them all,” she said.

Ford officials declined to name grantees they have punished this way, nor will the foundation say how many NGOs the foundation has cut loose since revising its guidelines.

While Ford willingly explains the details of how its grantee monitoring works, it refused to provide JTA any concrete evidence of actual investigations, even with grantee names blacked out.

Anything that comes close to revealing a name, said Ironside, “could create a de facto blacklist or be defaming.” That, he added, could lead to legal action.

Ford moved quickly in late 2003 to jettison one of the prime Durban instigators – the Palestinian Committee for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment, also known as LAW. But that public announcement was made easier when the group’s serious financial improprieties also came to light.

Among the others no longer funded, it seems, are the Habitat International Coalition and 2005 boycott signatory Ittijah: The Union of Arab Community Based Associations in Haifa.

Ittijah, according to NGO Monitor, “joined a number of Palestinian NGOs in rejecting anti-terror clauses in funding agreements” with Ford and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Another signer of the 2005 petition, Shaml: The Palestinian Diaspora and Refugee Center, was at the time a Ford grantee. It received $90,000 “for a program of research and advocacy on the rights and status of Palestinian refugees.” It is no longer a grantee.

Ford officials, meanwhile, say that while they recognize that boycotts are sometimes seen as a legitimate political tool, the foundation would not support a group devoted exclusively to boycotts.

“Our position against boycotts, divestment and sanctions campaigns is clear: We do not fund them,” Ironside said.

Many organizations around the world nonetheless look on boycotts as a constructive and nonviolent means to bring about policy change.

“We do not expect to share every position taken by each organization we support, and indeed we do not,” Ironside said. “What we do expect of every grantee is to share and live by the values embedded in our mission: the inherent worth and dignity of all people; social justice and equality; the search for knowledge, understanding and cooperation; and respect for civil society and democratic values.”

While NGO Monitor keeps the heat on, other Ford critics from 2003 express less concern while noting they have moved on to other issues and don’t follow Ford money so closely now.

“I’m confident that Ford is taking this issue seriously and acting in good faith,” Foxman said. “I know there are pressures on them from all sides. There may be some aberrations, some perversions, and some of it is a judgment call. It’s not an exact science.”

Monitoring so many grantees is no simple process, said Nadler, even when looking at the narrower sphere of Ford funding from its Cairo office. With a “violation” open to interpretation, Ford is indeed the sole arbiter.

Nadler acknowledges “gray areas” in the implementation of Ford’s guidelines and process, and doesn’t agree with every organization the foundation chooses to fund.

“But will I say with certainty that Ford’s actions have been sincere and highly commendable? Yes,” the congressman said.

“And have their guidelines become an effective high-water mark that has both set an important tone and significantly lessened anti-Semitic and Israel-threatening activities that had been going on in the NGO world for years? Absolutely.”

With Berresford’s retirement last year, some on the left expressed hope that Ford’s incoming president, Luis Ubinas, would reverse the guidelines policy.

Sherman, the Nation writer, penned an op-ed last October in The Los Angeles Times under the headline “Fixing Ford,” in which he called on Ubinas to “move quickly to rectify the mistakes of his predecessor and realign Ford’s day-to-day grant-making with the lofty principles that have guided the foundation.”

The new president, however, says there’s no chance.

“Susan put a lot of thought into creating this policy,” Ubinas recently told JTA, “and I have no intention of changing it.”

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