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Ford Foundation CEO says philanthropists ‘have missed the mark’ in addressing extreme rhetoric

Walker was speaking at the Jewish Funders Network international conference in Phoenix, Ariz.

Speaking earlier this week at the Jewish Funders Network international conference in Phoenix, Ariz., Ford Foundation CEO Darren Walker addressed the state of philanthropy. Asked where the field has fallen short, Walker said that “we have missed the mark” in recognizing extreme rhetoric and keeping it out of the public square, which he said has become “toxic” when it “needs to be vibrant and vital.” He also acknowledged that even some of the Ford Foundation’s “favorite grantees” have contributed to that degradation of the public square by being too quick to accuse groups of “malice” for holding differing opinions.

“By which I mean,” the Ford Foundation CEO continued, “if you say something to me as a Black gay man, and it’s disagreeable, my response to you is, ‘You said that because you’re a racist and a homophobe.’ We can’t live in a society where to disagree is immediately attributed to malice…In our desire to be inclusive, which is essential, we need that. We also have to be better at articulating the rules of engagement that make for a healthy democracy, and that is hard to do.” 

Walker was speaking at a plenary at the Jewish Funders Network’s annual gathering alongside UJA-Federation of New York President Eric Goldstein and Paula Pretlow, a trustee of the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation.

The Ford Foundation has in the past come under criticism for its donations. In 2003, Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) raised concerns over the foundation’s support for the Palestinian NGO Network and other grantees that promoted boycotts of Israel.

From 2003-2011, the Ford Foundation distributed roughly $40 million to Israel-based NGOs via support for the New Israel Fund. In 2011, the foundation announced the cessation of funding for Israel-related initiatives, citing efforts to ascertain “how best to contribute toward democracy and development in the region.”

But recent years have seen the foundation give to American organizations whose focus is Israel. Among its top grantees are the Tides Center, which funds the Boston-based Adalah Justice Center. The foundation also donated upwards of $2.6 million to Human Rights Watch (HRW) between 2018-2021. In 2019, HRW’s Israel and Palestine director, Omar Shakir, had his work visa revoked by Israel for his support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.

The Ford Foundation has also given $6 million to Amnesty International since 2019 — $5.1 million of which has been given since 2021. Last year, Paul O’Brien, the organization’s U.S. director, accused Israel of “apartheid” and posited that a majority of American Jews preferred “a safe Jewish space” over the established state of Israel. O’Brien later apologized for his remarks, saying he “regret[s] representing the views of the Jewish people.”

Walker, who has led the Ford Foundation since 2013, is slated to make his first trip to Israel this summer with UJA.

“He’s engaged in a very collaborative process with the Jewish community, going to Israel and being willing to hear our concerns. And the comment he made at the plenary reflects openness to be attentive to our concerns,” JFN President and CEO Andres Spokoiny told JI on Thursday.

“The Jewish community needs allies in the secular philanthropic space,” Spokoiny added.