Terra Incognita: Good riddance to the Ford Foundation

Until Israeli NGOs can find a way to see past ethnicity, they don’t deserve funding – not from their society nor from abroad.

I was initially saddened to see the Forward’s headline “Ford Foundation, Big Funder of Israeli NGOs, Pulling out.” The article revealed that the Ford Foundation had given $40 million to Israeli NGOs since 2003. Nathan Gutman noted that the charity “will not resume its funding for programs in Israel once its current grant round ends in two years. The reason, the organization explains, has to do with changing priorities, not with politics.”
The Ford Foundation’s huge funding had been made under the umbrella of the Ford Israel Fund since 2003, in partnership with the New Israel Fund. “The initiative focused its grant making in three fields – advancing civil and human rights, helping Arab citizens in Israel gain equality, and promoting Israeli-Palestinian peace.”
A short list of the organizations funded through the initiative includes Adalah, B’Tselem, HaMoked, Citizens Accord between Jews and Arabs in Israel, Physicians for Human Rights- Israel, Sikkuy and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.
So the Ford grants, like those given by the EU, were directed primarily at the Arab minority and Palestinians. Scanning the recipients, it is hard to find any that deal with non-sectarian issues, such as poverty, women’s rights, sexual health or providing training to the disadvantaged. This is because the Ford Foundation had been in partnership with the New Israel Fund, which disproportionatly funds NGOs that deal either with Israeli-Arabs or the rights of Palestinians.
As was the case when examining EU funding in Israel, it is important to look at the big picture. The Ford Foundation was founded in 1936 by Edsel Ford, son of Henry Ford. Its charter declares that it was founded “to receive and administer funds for scientific, educational and charitable purposes, all for the public welfare.”
The foundation seeks to promote global peace, freedom and education. Since 1974 it has been completely independent of Ford Motors, with assets of around $11 billion. The Foundation is generally considered somewhat left of center, supporting abortion rights, for instance. The charity has been a long-time supporter of Palestinian NGOs, to the tune of millions of dollars in 2000- 2001 alone. But in the wake of criticism, it seems to have scaled back some of that funding.
The Ford Foundation’s website has a database that appears transparent. A search for all the funds given to the Middle East in 2009-2011 reveals $16 million. The organization’s Middle East headquarters is in Cairo, and Egypt receives the bulk of the grants. The Middle East office has goals such as: “to empower the marginalized,” “promote transparent and effective government,” “reduce HIV/AIDS discrimination,”, “advance higher education,” “support diverse arts spaces,” “sexual and reproductive health education,” “promoting cultural preservation,” “building the capacity of key organizations,” and “advancing research.”
A quick scan of the grants distributed by the Cairo office reveals that none of them went to the New Israel Fund. It turns out that a great deal of funding for the Middle East and North Africa is hidden by the Ford Foundation under what is termed “Global” funding and funding labeled as being directed at the United States. Under those receiving “Global” grants in 2010 were such organizations as the Arab Institute for Human Rights ($278,000), the Center of Arab Women for Training and Research ($250,000), The Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality ($140,000), the American University of Cairo ($280,000), The Coptic Evangelical Association ($920,000) and the Egyptian Association for Community Participation ($100,000).
Among the 1,064 grants given to organizations in the US in 2009-2010 is a grant to the New Israel Fund. It is an oddly nontransparent way to label money directed toward Israel.
According to a 2007 article in Yediot Aharonot, the Ford Foundation has spent $70 million in Israel since 1948. It seems, then, that the New Israel Fund partnership will have accounted for about half of the overall money granted to Israel since its independence. That money has been directed toward sectarian causes, which is to say Israeli-Arabs and Palestinians.
The problem is that when the Ford Foundation sets out to fund projects in Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon, it does so without considering sectarian issues. It doesn’t fund only Armenian projects in Lebanon, or only Christian and Circassian minorities in Jordan. The projects it appears to fund are open to all and benefit all. Sexual and reproductive health programs benefit all women equally. Advancing higher education benefits all. “Supporting diverse art spaces” – whatever that means – seems to potentially benefit everyone.
THE NEW Israel Fund bills itself as an organization that supports civil society; its slogan is ‘say yes to a better Israel,’ and the Ford Foundation seems to have thought that the NIF would channel its money to a wide range of causes. But the reality is that many of the organizations the NIF funds exist only to support narrow political and ethnic causes.
The New Israel Fund hijacked the Ford Foundation, and directed the significant funding it provided toward a certain agenda.
The Ford Foundation money could have helped poor Israelis – Jews and Arabs – achieve their higher education dreams.
It could have helped women – Jews and Arabs – to learn about reproductive health. It could have promoted greater transparency in government, and brought art to poor neighborhoods from Kiryat Malahi to Wadi Joz. It could have, but it didn’t, because the New Israel Fund threw up a wall between the Ford Foundation and Israeli society, and directed its funds elsewhere. To be sure, a few hundred thousand dollars found their way to non-sectarian places like the Hebrew University ($300,000) and the media activist group Agenda ($250,000), but millions were targeted elsewhere.
So we should say, sadly, good riddance to the Ford Foundation. Israel’s NGOs and progressive US Jews who have played a role in the New Israel Fund, thwart efforts to help Israelis. They see only Palestinians and Jews, rather than people, and want to look romantically at some tiny coexistence groups that have little impact. Until Israeli NGOs can find a way to see past ethnicity, they don’t deserve funding – not from their society nor from abroad.
The writer has a PhD from Hebrew University, and is a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies.