WASHINGTON, Nov. 16 (JTA) — “Questions raised about the Ford Foundation and terrorist front organizations obviously must be answered,” said Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. The committee, Grassley said, “will be reviewing the matter to determine if the tax code is properly structured to penalize tax-exempt foundations for making such donations.”
Grassley’s announcement came Nov. 13 in response to a formal request by Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) for an investigation of Ford, part of a growing chorus of voices on Capitol Hill calling for increased scrutiny of the Ford Foundation’s funding practices.
The calls come in the wake of a JTA investigation that found that Ford, one of America’s largest philanthropic institutions, provides millions of dollars to a host of Palestinian and pro-Palestinian groups that are at the forefront of a vicious anti-Israel campaign.
Speaking earlier this month from the Senate floor, Santorum said, “It pains me that I must come to the floor today to apprise my colleagues of allegations that have been reported with regard to some of the activities of one of America’s leading foundations, the Ford Foundation.”
The senator cited reports published by JTA and picked up by newspapers around the country that “describe how the Ford Foundation gave millions of dollars to dozens of Palestinian organizations that have been in the forefront of the anti-Semitic and anti-Israel campaign that is ongoing around the world.”
Santorum said he would ask Grassley to direct the Finance Committee to “look into this more deeply and again review the controls we have in place for foundation activities and grants overseas.”
The JTA investigation, published a month ago, did not identify any instances of Ford monies being linked to terrorism. But it described Ford’s extensive funding of Palestinian groups that turned the 2001 U.N. World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, into a focused indictment of Israel as an illegitimate apartheid, colonial and genocidal regime, with invective that many observers felt crossed the line into anti-Semitism.
Ford officials refused to answer any questions regarding the activities of specific Palestinian groups or their use of Ford funds.
The congressional response to the revelations about Ford was spearheaded by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), who obtained the signature of 20 colleagues on a petition demanding that Ford halt its funding of such groups and observe U.S. government funding guidelines designed to stop charitable donations to the Middle East from ending up in terrorist hands.
After the revelations, the State Department said, “In light of these charges, and because it is an enforcement issue against a U.S.-based organization, it is an area in which we are talking to the Department of Justice.”
Sources at the Justice Department said they still were trying to decide which department might pursue the matter.
“It might be the criminal division for violations of the Patriot Act,” one official said.
Blain Rethmeier, a Justice Department press officer, refused to confirm or deny whether an investigation has been initiated.
Several congressional and Jewish communal sources indicated they would challenge the foundation’s tax-exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service.
“Any time a member of Congress or public individuals complain about foundations abusing their tax-exempt privilege, it is closely reviewed,” an IRS official said.
Facing the calls for scrutiny of its funding practices, the Ford Foundation seems to be in disarray over its next move.
The foundation initially denied that groups it funded were engaged in anti-Israel agitation.
“We have seen no indication that our grantees in Durban or elsewhere engaged in anti-Semitic speech or activities,” said Alexander Wilde, Ford’s vice president of communications.
“Some of our human rights and development grantees have certainly been critical of policies and practices of the Israeli government insofar as these discriminate against Palestinians or otherwise violate their rights, according to internationally agreed human rights standards and international law,” he said.
But, Wilde added, “We do not believe that this can be described as ‘agitation.’ ”
Wilde reiterated that position in a letter to the editor of Canada’s National Post, insisting, “The allegations are not true.”
But the day after the JTA investigation was published last month, the foundation reversed itself.
Bradford Smith, vice president of Ford’s Peace and Social Justice Programs, wrote in a letter to the Forward newspaper, “Like many, we were shocked by the extremist rhetoric of some participants on Israeli-Palestinian issues.”
Even after Wilde told the New York Sun, “We see no way to change the way we do business,” other Ford officials signaled that change indeed might be possible.
“Separate from Durban,” Smith said in his letter to the Forward, “we have held frank and productive discussions with Palestinian grantees, including the Palestinian NGO Network (PNGO), concerning images and messages that we deemed inflammatory.”
After Nadler pressed the issue in Congress, Ford’s president, Susan Berresford, agreed to meet Nadler in New York on Nov. 3 to discuss the issue.
“We had done considerable homework before the meeting to get chapter and verse on their grantees so we could tell them, ‘You can’t deny what happened,’ ” Nadler recounted.
“But at the beginning of the meeting, to my surprise, they claimed they have not knowingly funded anyone interested in anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, or anything to delegitimize Israel,” he said. “I answered, ‘But you have.’ Then I added, ‘Since you say you don’t want to, then not only should you not do it, you must be seen by everyone as not doing it.’ ”
“In essence, we said, ‘Let’s not debate the past. Let’s ensure that what happened will not happen again,’ ” Nadler said.
The congressman said he laid out specific recommendations, which he did not make public, to reform Ford’s funding of hate groups.
Berresford promised to respond to the recommendations quickly, Nadler said. The congressman said he would take a “wait-and-see” attitude.
Ford also followed up with others, including Jewish officials, to answer the rising tide of criticism.
Shortly after the Nadler meeting, Berresford contacted Mortimer Zuckerman, a media magnate who is the immediate past chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. A meeting was held Nov. 12, but details were not available.
Ford’s initial reaction to JTA’s investigation has left the foundation with a public-relations dilemma.
If foundation officials refrain from taking steps to curtail the hate speech they have funded, they will be seen as ignoring the problem. But if they do take steps, it will be an admission that they can rein in the hateful images and campaigns they finance — and chose not to do so in the past.
When the Ford-funded anti-Israel Web site, www.palestinereport.org, deleted its “armed revolution” pages and its direct links to the Web sites of terrorist groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad — steps taken after JTA published its investigation — Ford officials declined to acknowledge the change or their role in it.
However, a staffer at www.palestinereport.org said, “Ford’s Cairo office called and insisted we remove the links at once because of the funding articles — and the problems with the Congress was the reason. We redesigned the entire site without those links.”
Congress and Jewish groups are insisting on more than cosmetic changes, however: They want the funding to stop.
The groups funded by Ford have refused to sign a Certification Regarding Terrorist Financing, a pledge required by USAID, which affirms that no funds have made or will make their way into organizations to “advocate or support terrorist activities.”
“A note of reality crept in when Ford saw that the JTA information was credible and the facts against them were solid,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents. “We are seeing the first signs of change, but they are still funding these same organizations. That is a matter of concern and hopefully we will see a change.”
Congress and Jewish groups are demanding complete transparency and open files. Currently, Ford does not provide access to information regarding its grants until 10 years after the grant is made.
Despite the calls by members of congress for greater transparency, Ford officials say they will never open their files.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said, “I am delighted that Ford Foundation has stopped denying any possibility of wrongdoing, but I don’t think a concerned public and Congress will tolerate much more foot-dragging. If they do not quickly open their files, then Congress and law enforcement agencies will be forced to become more involved.”
“My best advice to them is, be forthcoming, create some mechanism that would involve full disclosure of all the pertinent facts, correct future practices and prevent recurrence,” Hoenlein said.
The president of the American Jewish Congress, Jack Rosen, said, “If they don’t agree to open it up, it becomes even more important that the government investigate whether Ford is using tax-exempt money in possible violation of government rules. Whether you are Enron or the Ford Foundation, you ought to be required to answer.”
Rosen, whose organization was the first to call for an investigation, said, “If we are not satisfied that a government investigation will take place, we will continue to consider legal action.”
“Ford’s arrogance is not so much their point of view in having continued to fund the Palestinian hate groups that support terrorists, but doing so when they know full well that the U.S. government has shut down Muslim charity groups that have done the same thing,” Rosen said.
“We thought the problem of such funding ended by investigating Muslim charity groups. Now we find entities with high standing in America may also be in the same business.”
Edwin Black is the author of “War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race,” which investigates corporate philanthropic involvement in American and Nazi eugenics. In May 2003, he won the American Society of Journalists and Authors’ award for best book of the year for “IBM and the Holocaust.” The entire JTA investigative series on Ford Foundation funding can be read at jta.org/ford.asp.