In August 2001, thousands of human rights activists from around the globe gathered in Durban, South Africa, for a United Nations conference that many participants hoped would address racial injustices plaguing humanity, from Rwanda to Sri Lanka to the United States.
Instead, anti-Israel agitation, anti-Zionist propaganda and blatant antisemitism permeated the eight-day U.N. World Conference Against Racism. The event featured posters displaying Nazi icons and Jewish caricatures, anti-Israel protest marches, organized jeering, incendiary leaflets and anti-Jewish cartoons, in addition to anti-American agitation. A resolution drafted by nongovernmental organizations at the conference labeled Israel a “racist apartheid state” guilty of “genocide and ethnic cleansing.”
Israeli officials and Jewish groups were not surprised by the
events — they had been warning for months that Palestinian nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, and their allies, were bent on hijacking the conference.
What they did not suspect was the degree to which some key groups leading the charge against Israel at Durban were being funded by one of America’s largest and arguably most prestigious philanthropic institutions: the Ford Foundation.
“We are struck by the scores of Palestinian NGOs funded by Ford,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, “a number of which have deeply disturbing and troubling records on Israel and Jews.”
The Ford Foundation — which was endowed with funds donated by Henry and Edsel Ford but no longer maintains any ties to the Ford Motor Company — has long been known as a funder of Palestinian causes. Less known is the extent of the foundation’s involvement in funding of groups that engage in anti-Israel and antisemitic activities both inside and outside the Middle East.
Financial Web Uncovered
The details of this financial web were uncovered during a two-month investigation, initiated by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, involving interviews with dozens of individuals in seven countries, as well as a review of more than 9,000 pages of government and organizational documents. The findings come at a time when Western governments are asking tough questions about the hundreds of millions of dollars being pumped into Middle East NGOs by private foundations in the United States and in Europe.
The questions involve issues of transparency and whether funders such as Ford are exercising proper controls. Increasingly, federal agencies concerned with fighting terrorism are asking: When money goes in one NGO’s pocket, where does it come out — and whom does it benefit?
The lack of transparency was a major stumbling block for Jewish groups monitoring the buildup to Durban and the conference itself. The Jewish representatives there “didn’t understand the efforts, the financing and the organization that went into hijacking the conference,” said one delegate, Reva Price, Washington representative of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
“We knew we were walking into problems because of what happened in the early [planning] meeting in Tehran,” Price said. “But we didn’t understand how organized the opposition was and what a well-financed campaign it was.”
The effect was to turn the conference, in the words of Rep. Tom Lantos, a California Democrat and a member of the American delegation, into “a transparent attempt to de-legitimize the moral argument for Israel’s existence.” Secretary of State Colin Powell, who refused to attend, ended up withdrawing the American delegation in the middle of the conference.
Ford officials played an active role in promoting the Durban conference and provided funding for several of the leading anti-Israel groups at the event, including the Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment. The group, known by the acronym LAW (for its original name, Land and Water), has received three Ford grants totaling $1.1 million since 1997. Officials with the Palestinian group took leadership positions on the Durban conference steering committees, conducted workshops and even sponsored a pre-conference mission to the West Bank and Gaza for South African delegates, to convince them that Israel was an apartheid state.
“LAW was instrumental in creating the anti-Zionist and antisemitic focus at Durban,” said Andrew Srulevitch, executive director of U.N. Watch, a Geneva-based watchdog group.
Ford was also a key funder of the Palestinian NGO Network, a coalition of some 90 Palestinian groups whose members worked their way into the conference bureaucracy that created the hostile environment in Durban.
The network led the move to craft an NGO resolution, submitted by the NGOs to the main, intergovernmental conference, that would have called “upon the international community to impose a policy of complete and total isolation of Israel as an apartheid state.” The draft called for “the imposition of mandatory and comprehensive sanctions and embargoes, [and] the full cessation of all links (diplomatic, economic, social, aid, military cooperation and training) between all states and Israel.” The resolution failed after it was rejected by the governmental conference, chaired by then-U.N. human rights commissioner Mary Robinson.
Reached by cell phone in Ramallah, the Palestinian NGO Network’s program director, Renad Qubbaj, said: “Ford is our biggest funder.” Another network official, Allam Jarrar, who helped organize the events at Durban, explained that Ford money allows his group to organize and participate in events across the world.
From 1999 to 2002, the network received a series of Ford grants totaling $1.4 million, plus a $270,000 supplement, according to an examination of the Ford Foundation’s IRS Form 990 filings, Web site databases and annual reports. The NGO network continues to receive at least $350,000 annually from Ford, according to the data.
“It is not only a sad comment on philanthropy running amok, but outrageous and irresponsible,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “The Ford Foundation, in its efforts to address evil, has — because of the lack of oversight and monitoring, and establishing serious criteria as to the recipient — wound up aiding and abetting extremists and political movements that border on antisemitism and anti-Americanism.”
Since the Durban conference, LAW has continued its public crusade against Israel and Zionism; the NGO network, together with many of its 90 member groups, continues to organize efforts to prosecute Israeli officials for alleged war crimes, boycott the Jewish state and label Israel a racist, illegitimate country that must be stripped of its Jewish identity.
Ford Official Responds
Alex Wilde, Ford’s vice president of communications, issued a six-page written statement in which he defended the groups funded by the foundation. “We have seen no indication that our grantees in Durban or elsewhere engaged in anti-Semitic speech or activities,” he wrote. “The Foundation does not support hate speech of any kind.”
Wilde added: “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.”
“We do not believe that this can be described as ‘agitation,’” the statement said.
The foundation said it was not aware of any specific grant money being used to finance antisemitic activity.
In addition to its funding of Palestinian groups, Ford makes grants to several Israeli and American Jewish groups that work for democratic social change within Israel and are opposed to terrorism, including Rabbis for Human Rights, B’Tselem and the New Israel Fund (see separate story).
Through its Cairo office, Ford has extended more than $35 million in grants to some 272 Arab and Palestinian organizations during the two-year 2000-2001 period alone — the most recent years for which data is available — plus 62 grants totaling more than $1.4 million to individuals.
Since the 1950s, the foundation’s Beirut and Cairo offices have awarded more than $193 million to more than 350 Middle East organizations, almost entirely Arab, Islamic or Palestinian.
Ford’s Web site, at www.fordfound.org, offers detailed information about its Middle East grants. On the site as of mid-October, “Palestine” is frequently mentioned on its Middle East pages, but Israel’s name is absent.
The list of Arab groups receiving Ford money extends for pages. One Palestinian agency, operating under the name Health, Development, Information and Policy Institute, received $135,000 in Ford grants. The institute operates a Web site, www.palestinemonitor.org, dedicated to mobilizing world action against Israel, including boycotts of Israeli goods and American companies that do business in Israel.
Another entity, the Jerusalem Media and Communication Centre, recently received three grants totaling $365,000 to create what Ford databases and reports describe as “media services for the foreign press and a weekly electronic magazine,” as well as “enhancement of media activities related to the crisis situation.”
The center publishes “The Palestine Report,” which can be found at www.palestinereport.org. This Web site employs dramatic imagery and testimony to portray Israel as an apartheid state guilty of war crimes, violations of international law and repeated massacres. As of early October, one of the Web site’s noteworthy features was a clickable section titled “From revolution to revolution,” which “focuses on internal Palestinian politics, political strengths and cracks in the armor of unity.”
A prominent “Resources” list features links to the Web sites of six Palestinian factions. Several of them are designated by the State Department as terrorist groups, including the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Islamic Jihad and the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas.
When the Jerusalem Media and Communication Centre was asked whether other organizations could be listed as well, an official explained, “We only link to the biggest and best organizations.”
A spokesman for the State Department’s Near East Affairs bureau who viewed “The Palestine Report” and its links to terrorist sites declared, “I am uncomfortable with the funding of this site and especially these links — very uncomfortable.”
Yehudit Barsky, director of the American Jewish Committee’s division on the Middle East and international terrorism, added, “I think this demonstrates that we in the United States have not paid attention — foundations can be used in a way no one can imagine. Here we see a Web site promoting terrorist organizations.”
Barsky argued that “We need two kinds of accountability from Ford — not just where did the money go, but how was it spent.”
Washington Adopts New Rules
Earlier this year, Washington attempted to shed light on the loosely controlled millions streaming into Palestinian organizations from foundations turned into action. The State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development began applying President Bush’s Executive Order No. 13224 to American organizations working in Palestinian areas. The order recognizes “the pervasiveness and expansiveness of the financial foundation of foreign terrorists” and regulates financial transactions that may end up in the hands of those that either commit or even “advocate” terrorism.
In May and June, USAID informed American tax-exempt charities it funds that if they partnered with any Palestinian NGOs, those groups would be required to sign a certificate pledging that no funds have made or will make their way to organizations that “advocate or support terrorist activities.”
Ford-funded Palestinian groups have criticized the new regulations, with one organization calling for a boycott of the rules.
“Who defines what is terror?” said Qubbaj, the NGO network’s program officer. “All funds received by the NGOs should be unconditioned — no political conditions.”
A spokesman for the State Department’s Near East Affairs bureau, Greg Sullivan, dismissed the criticisms.
“This should come as no surprise to the NGOs,” he said. “We want to see accountability and results. The money going into the Palestine area is a problem. That is why the executive order exists.”
He added: “We know terror acts when we see them, and we call them terrorism consistently.”
But one official from the Palestinian network said: “Ford does not make us sign this agreement.”
The new regulations have also been criticized by organizations in the United States, including Interaction, the largest American alliance of international humanitarian organizations. In a formal statement, the alliance asked the Treasury Department to withdraw the guidelines altogether. Interaction claimed that West Bank grantees would regard certification requests as “unduly intrusive.”
Sources at the Treasury say they want more than accountability: They want transparency — that is, the ability to review activity reports and monitoring, all of which are currently secret at organizations such as Ford. “The days of opaque financial transactions are over,” a State Department official said when asked about the millions of foundation dollars pouring into Palestinian NGOs. “Yes, we would like to see transparency, accountability and internationally acceptable standards on all their monies.”
At the same time that the State Department began tightening controls on NGO funding, it also began shifting monies directly to the Palestinian Authority. In May, the U.S. government granted $50 million in aid to Palestinian areas, channeling the first $30 million through Palestinian NGOs. However, on July 12, the State Department suddenly announced that the last $20 million of that original sum would be granted directly to the P.A.
Asked if there was an “unspoken linkage” in shifting financial transactions away from NGOs to genuine government structures, a State Department spokesman replied, “Not unspoken at all — but loudly spoken.”
The federal government, the spokesman said, is “deeply concerned about the fungibility of money to NGOs that can go in one door and out the back door, and then finance terrorist activities.” By contrast, the P.A. and its finance minister can be held “strictly accountable,” the State Department spokesman said.
At the Ford Foundation, little is made public other than a one-sentence description of a grant published in its annual reports, Web databases and IRS filings. Mounds of documents relating to the original grant, activity reports, monitoring and audits are all held secret for 10 years after the grant concludes. For example, in the case of LAW those files would not become available for public inspection until 2015 — and even then only after a cumbersome, academic-style review of any request.
In his written statement, Wilde said Ford had “no reason to believe that Ford Foundation grant funds have been used to benefit terrorist organizations.”
“The Ford Foundation takes the threat of possible misuse of grant funds for terrorism very seriously,” he wrote. “We share the concern of the U.S. government to minimize the risk that grant funds might be diverted for terrorist purposes. We comply fully with all legal requirements established by U.S. law and regulation.”
This investigation has not identified any instances of Ford monies being linked to terrorism. However, despite more than two dozen attempts, in writing and by phone, over a several-week period, Ford officials responsible for external communications refused to answer any questions regarding specific Palestinian NGOs, or past or present investigations regarding the misuse of specific funds.
LAW’s use of donor funds has come under scrutiny in recent months. The Palestinian organization received $9.62 million during the five years ending August 31, 2002, from a long list of philanthropic donors. Besides the Ford Foundation’s $1.1 million, LAW received direct grants from more than 30 European and American public entities.
Last fall, donors became concerned when LAW officials were unresponsive to spending inquiries, according to a newly installed senior LAW official. Soon it became clear to the donors that vast monies — more than $2 million — were unaccounted for, misappropriated or being secreted in bank accounts instead of being spent on programs.
A consortium of worried benefactors formed an evolving committee, made up mainly of Ford Foundation officials and Norwegian and Swiss donors, according to a source with the International Commission of Jurists in Sweden, one of the concerned donors.
The consortium wanted a major accounting firm to launch an immediate investigation and asked the Swedish relief agency SIDA to quickly commission an audit. SIDA enjoys an ongoing contract with Ernst & Young, which accepted the assignment immediately.
Ernst & Young’s offices in Stockholm and the West Bank city of Ramallah then undertook the investigation, according to a SIDA spokeswoman.