Is the Rockefeller Brothers Fund consciously funding delegitimization of Israel?

By Ben Cohen/JNS.org

Click photo to download. A demonstration in London calling for a boycott of Israel on Jan. 3, 2009. Credit: Claudia Gabriela Marques Vieira via Wikimedia Commons.

The Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF) is one of the more august grant-making institutions in the United States. Founded in 1940 by the sons of legendary oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller—America’s first billionaire, and a man whose political reputation was distinguished by his support for the Union during the Civil War as well as his commitment to educational opportunities for African Americans—the fund has always been a progressive enterprise, with a current emphasis on good governance, environmentalism, and the promotion of peace. 

It is in that latter category, an area that the fund calls “peacebuilding,” that serious concerns have been raised regarding its funding commitments to NGOs working on the Arab-Israeli conflict. NGO Monitor—an Israel-based organization dedicated to analyzing the activities of civil society groups working in the Middle East, along with those groups’ funders—has just published a report that casts doubt on RBF’s goal to promote a “more just, sustainable, and peaceful world,” for the simple reason that many of the Middle Eastern beneficiaries of its largesse demonize the state of Israel in stridently anti-Zionist terms.

For example, “Breaking the Silence,” a small group of left-wing former IDF soldiers who accuse Israel of committing war crimes during its 2008-09 defensive operation against Hamas terrorists in Gaza, has received $145,000 from RBF. A commentary and opinion website called +972 (named after the international dialing code for Israel) has received $130,000 from the fund. +972 regularly publishes articles endorsing the analogy between Israel and the apartheid regime in South Africa, and recently plastered its front page with articles about the “Nakba”—the Arabic word for “catastrophe” that is employed by Palestinian propagandists to describe the creation of the state of Israel. Among +972’s contributors is the odious Yossi Gurvitz, who recently tried to persuade me via Twitter that Judaism is a racist religion, drawing on the discredited tropes of Soviet Communist anti-Jewish literature to make his case. +972 has also cross-posted content co-written by the anti-Semitic American writer Max Blumenthal.

The Middle East Policy Network, a group that touts the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement as “the most effective and strategic campaign for [Palestinian] refugee return at present,” has received $30,000 from RBF. The Institute for Middle East Understanding, a similar organization that describes the entire territory from the Mediterranean Sea to the River Jordan as governed by Israeli “apartheid,” has received $50,000. 

These are colossal sums, especially when one considers the relatively small size of these NGOs. There is also the larger question of why RBF deems them worthy of funding, since their stated goals are aimed at fundamentally undermining Israel’s security, and the methods used to pursue them draw on the standard arsenal of delegitimization—boycotts, insistence on the “right of return” for the descendants of Arab refugees, and the portrayal of Israel’s creation as the Middle East’s “original sin.” 

Moreover, as NGO Monitor President Gerald Steinberg pointed out to me in Jerusalem last week, the road which RBF is currently traveling down was previously traversed by another major funder, the Ford Foundation, which rapidly changed direction when it realized that the promotion of peace and the promotion of delegitimization are polar opposites. 

“In 2001, the U.N. organized a massive ‘anti-racism’ conference in Durban, South Africa, which was really the beginning of BDS and delegitimization,” Steinberg said. “You had 5,000 NGO representatives using terms like ‘apartheid’ and ‘genocide’ against Israel. And it was funded primarily by the Ford Foundation.”

The Ford Foundation’s credibility, Steinberg continued, was initially damaged by its association with the Durban hatefest. To Ford’s immense credit, however, it publicly acknowledged that mistake and pledged never to repeat it. In 2003, then Ford Foundation President Susan Berresford announced that no grants would henceforth be awarded to organizations supporting “terrorism, bigotry, or the delegitimization of Israel.” 

Steinberg and NGO Monitor would like to see the RBF engage in similar reflection. That will not be easy for many reasons, principal among them that Daniel Levy, a founder of the leftwing lobbying group J Street, which is another recipient of RBF funds, just happens to be an RBF trustee. Levy also sits on the board of directors of another Israeli group that receives RBF funds and is also heavily involved with the New Israel Fund, which works with many of the radical NGOs backed by RBF money.

Steinberg’s attempts to seek clarification from RBF were met with what he described as “pro forma responses—basically reiterating what they say in their guidelines and on their website, but no explanation of what seems to be a very blatant contradiction between those guidelines and what they are actually doing.”

I also sent emails to RBF officials Stephen Heintz and Ariadne Papagapitos requesting similar clarification. In their response to me, RBF did not address the substance of the NGO Monitor report, merely saying, “We respectfully disagree with your assessment of the contributions our grantees are making in support of the goal and strategies of our Peacebuilding Program and toward peacebuilding activities in the region.”

Ben Cohen

Given this reply, it isn’t possible to determine whether RBF is simply misguided, as was the Ford Foundation, or, as insinuated above, whether it endorses the goals of the extremist groups it funds. What we do know, though, is that the delegitimization of Israel requires money. If diehard opponents of Israel are receiving six-figure sums for their activities from RBF, that will build many things—but peace isn’t one of them. ­ 

Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org and a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Commentary, Haaretz, and other publications. His book, “Some Of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014), is now available through Amazon. 

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***Correction: This article initially stated that +972 contributor Yossi Gurvitz is a "collaborator" of American writer Max Blumenthal. That language has been removed. +972 has cross-posted Blumenthal's writing, but Blumenthal and Gurvitz have not collaborated on any writing for +972. Additionally, Gurvitz clarifies that he has never been a collaborator of Blumenthal.

Posted on May 21, 2014 and filed under Opinion, Israel, U.S..