In August 2001, thousands of human rights activists from around the globe gathered in Durban, South Africa, for a United Nations conference that participants hoped would address racial injustice plaguing humanity, from Rwanda to Sri Lanka to the United States.
But after more than a year of preparatory conferences held in Iran, Switzerland, Chile, France and Senegal, it became clear to Israeli officials and Jewish organizational leaders that Palestinian nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, and their allies, had manipulated the agenda of the U.N. World Conference Against Racism into a focused indictment of Israel as an illegitimate apartheid, colonial and genocidal regime.
Moreover, the proposed language of conference resolutions would deny or dilute the Holocaust and espouse an openly anti-Semitic stance.
Many Western leaders, including U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, declined to attend what U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), a member of the American delegation to the conference, termed "a transparent attempt to delegitimize the moral argument for Israel's existence." As expected, anti-Israel agitation, anti-Zionist propaganda and blatant anti-Semitism permeated the eight-day Durban affair. Posters displaying Nazi icons and Jewish caricatures, anti-Israel protest marches, organized jeering, inciting leaflets and anti-Jewish cartoons were everywhere, as was orchestrated anti-American agitation.
A virulent resolution drafted by nongovernmental organizations at the Durban conference declared Israel a "racist apartheid state" guilty of "genocide and ethnic cleansing." The spectacle was so noxious that Powell withdrew the American delegation.
Who financed a number of the groups at Durban that printed and distributed these materials, purchased advertising and conducted workshops?
"No one knew where the money was coming from to fund all these NGOs," remembers Judith Palkovitz of Pittsburgh, Hadassah general secretary and a delegate to Durban. "I assumed it was a foreign group -- say, Saudi Arabia."
When asked, one Jewish communal leader after another, and several State Department officials, also guessed: Saudi Arabia.
They were wrong.
The Ford Foundation, one of America's largest philanthropic institutions -- and arguably the most prestigious -- was a multimillion-dollar funder of many human rights NGOs attending Durban.
That is the conclusion of a two-month Jewish Telegraphic Agency investigation, 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.
Ford -- 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.
But most observers did not suspect the extent of the foundation's involvement in funding of groups that engage in anti-Zionist, anti-Semitic and pro-Palestinian activities both inside and outside the Middle East.
With hundreds of millions of dollars being pumped into Mideast NGOs by numerous private foundations here and in Europe, government and communal officials are raising significant questions about transparency, how the money in Palestinian areas is being used and whether funders such as the Ford Foundation are exercising proper controls.
Increasingly, federal agencies concerned with fighting terrorism are asking: When money goes in one NGO's pocket, where does it go and whom does it benefit?
The Jewish representatives at Durban "didn't understand the efforts, the financing and the organization that went into hijacking the conference," recalled Reva Price, Washington representative of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and a Durban delegate.
"We knew we were walking into problems because of what happened in the early meeting in Teheran," Price said. "But we didn't understand how organized was the opposition and what a well-financed campaign it was."
Many Jewish organizational officials who participated in the long process complained that a key organization responsible for the methodical hijacking of the conference was the Palestinian Committee for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment, which operates under the acronym LAW.
LAW officials took leadership positions on the Durban conference steering committees, conducted workshops and even sponsored a pre-conference mission to the West Bank and Gaza Strip for South African delegates to convince them that Israel was an apartheid state.
"LAW was instrumental in creating the anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic focus at Durban," confirmed Andrew Srulevitch, executive director of U.N. Watch, a Geneva-based group that monitors the world organization.
But it was not just LAW. The Palestinian NGO Network, or PNGO, an umbrella organization of some 90 Palestinian NGOs, as well as many of its constituent groups, diligently became embedded in the conference bureaucracy that created the hostile environment at Durban.
PNGO led the move to craft an NGO resolution that would "call upon the international community to impose a policy of complete and total isolation of Israel as an apartheid state," including "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."
Durban was not a one-time investment for the Ford Foundation -- a major funder of LAW and PNGO.
Indeed, 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 to individuals that total more than $1.4 million, according to Ford's Web site as accessed in mid-October 2003.
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 Mideast pages, but Israel's name is absent. Moreover, the Web site's shaded map of the geographical region from Egypt to Lebanon and Jordan blanks out over Israel's territory, even though Ford does make grants to both Jewish and Arab organizations in Jerusalem.
Initially, despite more than two dozen requests by phone and in writing over a period of several weeks, the Ford Foundation's communications vice-president Alex Wilde, deputy media director Thea Lurie and media associate Joe Voeller refused to answer any questions or clarify any issues regarding the foundation's funding of groups engaged in anti-Israeli agitation and anti-Semitic or anti-Zionist activity.
However, after this investigation was completed, Wilde did send a six-page written statement, declaring, "We have seen no indication that our grantees in Durban or elsewhere engaged in anti-Semitic speech or activities. 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 asserted.
Both LAW and PNGO confirmed that their Ford funds were pivotal.
"Ford has made it possible for us to do much of our work," a senior LAW official in Jerusalem said in an interview.
Since 1997, LAW has been the recipient of three Ford grants, totaling $1.1 million, to engage in "advocacy" and participate at international conferences, according to LAW officials. A Ford Foundation official's check of the charity's confidential computer databases confirmed the information.
Reached in Ramallah on her cell phone, PNGO program coordinator Renad Qubaj recalled her coordination of activities in Durban.
"In Durban, for sure we published posters saying, 'End the occupation,' things like that," Qubaj said, "and we published a study, had a press conference, organized our partners and protest marches."
Asked about finances, she added, "Unfortunately, we are very dependent on the international funds. Not just PNGO but all the Palestinian NGOs -- 90 of them in our group. We get very little money from the Arabs -- just needy family cases. Ford is our biggest funder."
Allam Jarrar, a member of the 11-person PNGO steering committee network, and one who helped organize the events at Durban, explained that Ford money allows PNGO to have a global scope.
"We do lots of international advocacy conferences and regional forums," Jarrar explained in an interview, "and we always try to represent our political view to Europe. We attended some women's conferences [in Europe], plus Durban."
"Our biggest donations come, of course, from Ford," Jarrar added. "We have been in partnership with Ford for a long time -- a real partnership, a real understanding of our needs.
"Of course, when we go to an international conference, we try to get extra funds from one of their special budgets," Jarrar said. "Or sometimes the conferences' organizers, if they have their own Ford Foundation funding, they send us the finances to attend."
From 1999 to 2002, PNGO 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. PNGO continues to receive at least $350,000 annually from Ford, according to the data.
LAW and PNGO were hardly the only Ford-backed groups at Durban. The conference was a major enterprise for the Ford Foundation.
In a Ford Web site commentary written prior to Durban, Bradford Smith, Ford's vice-president for peace and social justice, wrote that the conference's issues were "at the core of the Ford Foundation's mission since its inception."
More than a dozen activist organizations -- from Brazil to Sri Lanka -- received Ford grants in excess of $1 million specifically earmarked for the production of advertising materials, public meetings and advocacy at the Durban conference.
"Does all this mobilizing, networking and drafting of statements have real impact on people's lives?" Smith asked in the statement. His answer: Yes, "because for years to come they [Ford grantees] and the foundation will work together to implement the [Durban] Conference Plan of Action."
Since the Durban conference, LAW has continued its public crusade against Israel and Zionism and PNGO, as well as many of its 90 members; continued to organize efforts to try Israeli officials as war criminals; and boycotted the Jewish state and labeled Israel a racist, illegitimate state that must be stripped of its Jewish identity.
While a number of the Ford-financed organizations at Durban, such as LAW and PNGO, engaged in anti-Israel and anti-Zionist agitation, certainly many did not.
Either way, Ford Foundation money, as intended, was a prime mover in the production of the advocacy pamphlets, posters, workshops and other materials at the conference that shaped the overall atmosphere.
"I saw the Ford representative at Durban," remembered Palkovitz, the Hadassah delegate, who spotted him in connection with African American reparations issues. "There was no way to miss the anti-Semitism. The Ford guy would have to be blind. It was the most anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist stuff you ever saw.
"I told the Ford representative I thought it was a mistake because the whole meeting was being hijacked," she related. "He disagreed. He said he believed what the conference was doing was correct."
"We are struck," said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, "by the scores of Palestinian NGOs funded by Ford, a number of which have deeply disturbing and troubling records on Israel and Jews."
The entire JTA investigative series on Ford Foundation funding can be read at www.jta.org/ford.asp .
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