Articles from

Nov.19, 2003

EDITORIAL & OPINION; Pg. 8

Waiting for Susan Berresford

In a stunning development yesterday, the Ford Foundation capitulated to critics and agreed "to strengthen the oversight and transparency of Ford programming" to put an end to its funding of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activities in the Middle East. The foundation's announcement followed its own denials over several weeks that there was a problem, despite gathering concern triggered by a series of dispatches by Edwin Black of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

The JTA dispatches culminated in a report (carried Tuesday on Page 1 of The New York Sun) that the Senate Finance Committee was preparing to launch a probe and that the Ford Foundation was threatening to stonewall any investigation. The probe, announced by Senator Grassley, had been sought in an effort by Rep. Jerold Nadler of New York and Senator Santo rum of Pennsylvania. The JTA report that the Ford Foundation would refuse to open its files to the probe suggested to us, and no doubt others, that a spectacular showdown was ahead. The announcements made yesterday appear designed to defuse such a crisis. But the Ford Foundation's admission of the need for oversight now raises the question of who is going to take responsibility for the funding of anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism that has been going on all this while. 

Why, if the intelligentsia can spend months in a lather about Jayson Blair at the New York Times, does it take the leadership of Messrs. Nadler, Santorum, and Grassley to ask the hard questions of an institution like the Ford Foundation? The defaults that led to the resignation of the executive editor of the New York Times are a lot less serious than those at the Ford Foundation. Will Susan Berresford have the character to submit her resignation? 

Over the last few weeks,the Ford Foundation has been playing dumb, professing to believe it was stunned by the reports and behaving as if all this were new. In fact, the problem of its funding of anti-Semitic operations was raised by the Jewish Forward in the late 1990s, in a dispatch written by the journalist who is now managing editor of The New York Sun. The dispatch, dated June 18,1999, ran under a headline that referenced the views of the Ford Motor founder and said, "Latest Ford Foundation Grantees Would Sure Make Henry I Proud." It reported that the Ford Foundation was supporting a Jerusalem-based group, the Society of St.Yves. "The Web site of the society has a section on 'Apartheid,' with the 'A' depicted as a Star of David," the Forward reported, as well as an essay with lurid charges against Zionism. 

Ms. Berresford reacted at the time by inviting the editors of the Forward to lunch. What Ms. Berresford said at lunch was off the record, but what the editors said was not.The editors made it clear that they felt that only an "awfully fine distinction" could separate what the foundation was doing with its funding in the Middle East from the classical anti-Semitism of Henry Ford I. Any suggestion that the Ford Foundation was surprised by the kind of charges the JTA raised is poppycock. 

Another question is why, once the JTA report was out, was Attorney General Eliot Spitzer of New York so flatfooted. "Until the Bush administration shows it is willing to do the job", Mr. Spitzer boasted in an op-ed piece in the Monday New York Times, "... it appears the public will have to rely on state regulators and lawmakers to protect its interests." Mr. Spitzer was talking about oversight of the securities industry, for which he has only tangential responsibility. Oversight of public foundations such as Ford couldn't be more central to his primary responsibilities (as Mr. Spitzer's web site makes clear). 

Yet, while the Ford Foundation is headquartered under his nose on 43rd Street in Manhattan, New Yorkers had to go to the Senate to get action. The undertakings made by the Ford Foundation yesterday followed meetings with a number of Jewish leaders, including one meeting between Ms. Berresford and the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman. Involvement of the ADL in crafting protections against funding anti-Semitism will be broadly welcomed. But it won't relieve the need for a public airing of what happened at the Ford Foundation. 

The JTA in a dispatch carried in the Sun yesterday quoted an unnamed official of the Justice Department as saying that it was trying to decide which division might pursue the matter. "It might be the criminal division for violations of the Patriot Act," the source was quoted as telling the JTA. There is also the question of whether the funding of hate groups could jeopardize the Ford Foundation's tax status. According to the JTA, Mr. Grassley, the Senate Finance Committee chairman, said that Congress should investigate whether the tax code adequately punishes tax-exempt foundations that give to terrorist organizations. The JTA also quoted an unnamed official of the Internal Revenue Service as saying the service reviews situations of congressional concern. 

The Ford Foundation's promises to weed out hate groups yesterday were a start, but someone will need to keep an eye out for how well they follow through on this pledge. Mr. Spitzer is a serious and distinguished lawman, and he would be a logical officer, though it will take some doing to catch up with Senator Grassley in this matter, for now. And all eyes will be on Ford's trustees and Ms. Berresford as they wrestle with their own role and the legacy of Henry the First.