Senate Critic Undeterred by Ford Apology

By Ori Nir

Published November 28, 2003, issue of November 28, 2003.
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WASHINGTON — Congressional Republicans say they plan to push forward with efforts to scrutinize the overseas activities of the Ford Foundation, despite the foundation’s promise last week that it would no longer fund Palestinian groups advocating violence or denying Israel’s legitimacy.

“It is still appropriate for there to be ongoing oversight” of the foundation by Congress, Republican Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania told the Forward this week. Santorum is pressing the Senate Finance Committee, of which he is a member, to conduct a review of the Ford Foundation’s overseas funding practices and determine whether the foundation had violated its tax-exempt status.

The Ford Foundation came under fire last month as a result of an investigative report on its Middle East activities, published October 17 in the Forward and other journals. The report, commissioned by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, showed that Ford had been funding Palestinian organizations that engaged in anti-Israel and antisemitic incitement and in some cases apparently maintained links with terrorist groups.

The foundation, after initially dismissing the accusations, acknowledged last week that it “did not have a clear picture” of its grantees’ activities, particularly their role in orchestrating the antisemitic atmosphere at a September 2002 United Nations conference on racism in Durban, South Africa. In a lengthy letter to Democratic Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, the foundation said it was “disgusted” by the antisemitism in Durban.

The November 17 letter, signed by foundation president Susan Berresford, promised a specific series of new measures to ensure that its funds no longer go to “groups that promote or condone bigotry or violence, or that challenge the very existence of legitimate, sovereign states like Israel.” It also promised new efforts to address “the alarming rise of antisemitism around the world” through “significant regional and global program actions.”

Nadler said the letter followed a lengthy negotiation that he and several officials from Jewish organizations, particularly the American Jewish Committee and Anti-Defamation League, had conducted with the Ford Foundation.

“From a Jewish community point of view, if we can get a major foundation like the Ford Foundation to stop doing bad things and start doing good things instead, that is wonderful,” Nadler said. He said he considered the problem solved, adding, “now we just have to watch them in the future.”

Santorum told the Forward that he was “encouraged” by Berresford’s letter, but would continue to urge the finance committee chairman, Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, to proceed with an investigation to “review the controls we have in place for foundation activities and grants overseas.”

Grassley agreed last week to conduct the review. He could not be reached this week to determine whether the review would proceed despite Berresford’s letter to Nadler.

Several Jewish groups greeted the Berresford letter warmly. “We welcome the statement by Ford that they will stop funding groups that have been promoting hatred of Israel and the delegitimization of Israel,” said the executive vice-chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Malcolm Hoenlein. “We look forward to seeing these changes implemented and hope that other foundations that may have engaged in similar conduct will also make the necessary corrections.”

The Ford Foundation is often criticized by conservative legislators and pundits for its funding of groups that promote social change and other causes seen as liberal. Ford was the target of the October issue of Foundation Watch, a newsletter published by the Capital Research Center, a conservative group that, among other issues, combats what it regards as a liberal bias in philanthropy.

The Ford Foundation is leading a coalition of philanthropic foundations seeking to combat congressional legislation aimed at reforming foundation activity. The measure would prohibit foundations from counting their expenses against the minimum 5% of their assets that they must donate each year to charitable causes. The bill could add as much as $4.3 billion a year nationally to the amount distributed to charities. But foundations contend that it may make it impossible for “foundations planning to exist in perpetuity” to do so, according to a letter sent to members of Congress recently by the Council on Foundations, a lobbying group.

On the defensive on several fronts, the Ford Foundation was hoping that eliminating its conflict with the Jewish community would also ease criticism of its overall funding policies.

“To the extent that someone wants to hurt the Ford Foundation for whatever reason, and is using this affair as a means of doing so, the Berresford letter would take a lot of wind out of their sails,” Nadler said.

Berresford’s five-page letter acknowledged that “mistakes in judgment can and do occasionally occur.”

Noting that she had held a series of meetings with Jewish organizational leaders to hear their concerns during the last month, Berresford wrote that the talks would “help deepen the foundation’s knowledge of the ‘new antisemitism’ around the world and yield lessons about measures that we and others can take to avoid repetition of the negative dynamics of Durban.”

Nadler cited what he said were five specific steps the Ford Foundation had taken or promised to take in the letter. Included, in addition to the planned campaign against antisemitism, were a requirement that overseas grantees sign a commitment not to promote violence or terrorism — something that the foundation had declined to demand in the past — and an agreement with the accounting firm KPMG to create a so-called “risk matrix” to identify potential abuses that would trigger an automatic audit of grantee activities.

The foundation also promised to conduct an in-depth review of the conduct of its grantees at the Durban conference, in consultation with Jewish organizations. And it cut off funding to one of its grantees, the Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment, also known as LAW, which was reported to be at the center of the incitement activities at Durban. “Ford is disturbed by the conduct of LAW’s past leadership” at the Durban conference, Berresford wrote.

Ford’s vice president for communications, Alex Wilde, said his organization accepts criticism of its mission and its conduct as something that “comes with the territory.” However, he said, “the steps that we have taken recently” regarding the Palestinian NGOs “go a long way to meeting the concerns that critics have expressed, if not meeting them completely.”

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