The Ford Foundation, which came under congressional scrutiny in 2003 for supporting groups committed to destroying Israel, is again drawing censure from elected officials and watchdog groups, this time for funding a panel at Columbia University highlighting a professor who blames Israel and its American supporters for the Iraq War and for Al Qaeda terrorism against America.
Professor John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, co-author of "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy" with Stephen Walt, a professor at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, is scheduled to speak at Columbia's Heyman Center for the Humanities next month on the issue of free speech in academia. The October 30 panel, titled "Freedom and the University," is funded with a $100,000 grant from the Ford Foundation for research and speaking events related to academic freedom.
Messrs. Mearsheimer and Walt's thesis is that a vast "Israel lobby," which includes the editors of the New York Times, "neoconservative gentiles," and even students at Columbia University, steer American foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction. They have argued that the lobby manipulates the American government to act in ways opposed to its national interest. And they have also argued that pressure, amounting to informal censorship, is put on those who are critical of Israel.
The emergence of the Ford Foundation as the financial backer of the conference at which Mr. Mearsheimer will speak is drawing notice because of promises the foundation made after a controversy erupted over its role at the Durban Conference in South Africa.
At that parley, in 2001, it came to light that many of the organizations in attendance were calling for boycotts against Israel and were being funded by the Ford Foundation.
After members of Congress called on the Ford Foundation to thoroughly review its grant recipients, the foundation promised reform and instituted more stringent guidelines for what kind of groups it would fund. At the time, Ford said its standard grant agreement was being revised to forbid violence and terrorism, as well as bigotry and calls for the destruction of any nation-state.
"It's disappointing that the Ford Foundation would make Mearsheimer one of the highlights of what they're funding," Rep. Eliot Engel, a Democrat of the Bronx, said in a telephone interview. "If the Ford Foundation is going to say they've changed their attitudes, doing something like this only calls into question whether they've got the message and changed."
The executive director of the NGO Monitor, Gerald Steinberg, said that by funding a panel where Mr. Mearsheimer is scheduled to speak, the Ford Foundation risks reneging on that promise by underwriting at Columbia the kind of falsehoods it was funding at Durban.
Messrs. Walt and Mearsheimer "are repeating many of these myths and use similar rhetoric that singles out Israel, uses double standards, and is considered by many to be anti-Semitic," Mr. Steinberg said. "On this basis, I would say that by helping promote this propaganda, Ford is violating its post-Durban pledge and repeating the same pattern."
A lawyer and a consultant for the Ford Foundation, Stuart Eizenstat, defended the grant to Columbia University. "This is a grant to a university for academic freedom," Mr. Eizenstat, who served in the Carter and Clinton administrations, said in an interview. "Ford doesn't micromanage the implementation. They can't be responsible for who their grantee chooses to be in their panel." Ford Foundation officials said that the foundation had no role in choosing the speakers, and that they did not even know about the panel until they were informed of it by The New York Sun.
A spokeswoman for the Ford Foundation, Fiona Guthrie, said the objective of the grant is "strengthening the quality of scholarly discussion on the issue." According to a new report that is expected to be published in the next few weeks by the NGO Monitor, the Ford Foundation last year provided grants to politicized NGOs with strong anti-Israel and anti-peace agendas.
The unpublished report by the NGO Monitor concludes that overall, the Ford Foundation continued to support "problematic" NGOs, even after its pledge to clean up its act. "There is a very real danger that Ford-funded NGOs will again lead the demonization of Israel," the report states. Columbia University's invitation to host Mr. Mearsheimer comes at a time when other organizations have rescinded their invitations for him to speak.
Mr. Mearsheimer was scheduled to speak later this month with Mr. Walt at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. The offer was rescinded in July by the council's president, Marshall Bouton, who said he wanted Mr. Mearsheimer to appear only if his arguments were balanced by an opposite point of view. Mr. Mearsheimer did not return phone calls and e-mails over the past week.
The president of Columbia University, Lee Bollinger, defended the university's decision to host Mr. Mearsheimer on the panel. "This clearly falls within the core principle of academic freedom," Mr. Bollinger said in a statement. "One would hope that those committed to a robust First Amendment would see the vital importance of ensuring that our universities are places where free speech can be exercised, as well as taught."
Mr. Mearsheimer has not been invited to discuss his book directly, a Columbia spokesman said. The panelists were selected by the Heyman Center because they have all researched the issue of academic speech or because their own writing has pushed the boundary between free speech and merely inflammatory discourse.
Some critics say that in picking Mr. Mearsheimer, Columbia has actually chosen a suppressor of free speech.
"He won't debate the assertions and the things they say," the executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Malcolm Hoenlein, said. "They never engaged anyone from the ‘lobby.' They hide behind the guise of academic freedom when they're the ones denying us free speech. It seems a little out of place for them to speak on academic freedom." A professor at Columbia Business School and co-coordinator of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East at Columbia, Awi Federgruen, said that the panel would provide Mr. Mearsheimer with an opportunity to spread his view. "I'm not comfortable with people abusing their academic platform to act as a soapbox for propagating certain political views," Mr. Federgruen said.
Jewish student organizations said they would oppose Mr. Mearsheimer's appearance at Columbia if he were speaking about Israel, but not if he limited his commentary to broad issues of academic freedom.
"We have no reason to believe that given the theme of the lecture he will talk specifically about Israel-related issues," the executive director of the Columbia/Barnard Hillel, Simon Klarfeld, said. "We are sure that Jewish and pro-Israel students will be in attendance during both the lecture and the question and answer period."
The other participating panelists are professor Joan Scott of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University; professor Peter Novick of the University of Chicago; professor Robert Post of Yale Law School, and a former provost at Columbia University, Jonathan Cole.
In 2005, Mr. Cole defended professors in the university's Middle East department who came under fire for allegedly intimidating Jewish students in the classroom. The New York Sun reported at the time that Mr. Cole said it was the university's duty to defend its professors' political opinions on the grounds of academic free speech. Mr. Post has served as a chairman of academic freedom at Berkeley, where he defended the right of a Holocaust denier, David Irving, to speak at the university. "No one could be more abhorrent to me, but I took the position not to ban him, but that you don't have to listen to him either," Mr. Post said in an interview. "I wouldn't support to hire him as a faculty member, but to come as an outside speaker is a separate question."
Some professors at Columbia are lending their support to the university's decision to host Mr. Mearsheimer. "I'm not in sympathy with the people who have canceled his speaking arrangements," a professor of history at Columbia's Middle East Institute, Richard Bulliet, said. "There are barefaced attacks on Clinton, Bush, and all sorts of people all of the time. Those people are usually given ample room to express their views. I don't see any distinction to be made in this particular case."