Henry Ford: The Change-Averse Revolutionary

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Published May 12, 2006, issue of May 12, 2006.
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As readers of the Forward know all too well, the modern world is no stranger to antisemitism. Although an animus against the Jews of the West dates as far back as antiquity, one of the most notorious, pernicious and enduring of antisemitic tracts — “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” — is actually an early 20th-century invention. Less well known is that the Protocols found a receptive audience here, as well, thanks to the efforts of Henry Ford, America’s reigning industrialist and folk hero.

Popularizing “Protocols” in the pages of The Dearborn Independent, a Michigan newspaper with a once modest circulation, Ford made it front page news throughout the early 1920s. More to the point, perhaps, he made antisemitism respectable. Given the high repute in which so many Americans held the manufacturer of the Model T, his endorsement of “Protocols” as gospel truth was accorded great respect, as well. And that was just the half of it. Ford added insult to injury by publicizing his very own, wholly negative views of the Jews alongside those found in “Protocols.”

By his lights, the Jews were simply no good for America. “It is the peculiar genius of that race to create problems of a moral character in whatever business they achieve a majority,” he wrote, noting that, when it came to the theater, for instance, “there is a tremendous Judaizing movement on…. The American feel has gone out of the Theater; a dark, Oriental atmosphere has come instead.” From where Ford sat, the Jews of America were responsible for everything that soiled and debased the modern nation: the movies, jazz, trouser-clad women, the “mongrelization of Manhattan” and just about everything else that characterized the Jazz Age. Trafficking in a sly mix of innuendo and fact, Ford transformed the Jews, the “greatest cream-skimmers of the world,” into the very agents of change, and then damned them to hell for it.

Reading these angry remarks today, no less than in the 1920s, we can’t help but be puzzled by them. How was it possible for the architect of modernization, the man almost single-handedly responsible for changing the face, the pace and the sensibility of America, to turn into such a rabid foe of modern life?

Ford’s most recent biographer, Steven Watts, is confident that his subject’s antipathy toward the Jews did not grow out of any personal encounter per se; Watts’s research uncovered nothing to suggest that a negative experience with, say, a Jewish businessman soured Ford on American Jewry as a whole. Rather, the author of “The People’s Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century” (Knopf, 2005), attributes Ford’s antisemitism to a number of different factors, ranging from his populism to his pacifism. As he sees it, the manufacturer’s deep-seated suspicion of bankers combined with an equally deep aversion to World War I, whose outbreak he believed was encouraged by the Rothschilds and the Schiffs, to culminate in a hearty dislike of the Jews. Watts also suggests that Ford’s demonizing of America’s Jews was as much a function of his growing preoccupation with and nostalgia for the nation’s distant past as it was an expression of contemporary politics.

That may be. But I also suspect that what truly roiled the industrialist was the nature of modern life. For all his contributions to the making of modern America, Ford was, at bottom, no friend of modernity. The automobile was one thing; the movies and jazz and the new woman and all the rest were something else entirely. Distinguishing between capitalism as an economic system, which he favored, and capitalism as a cultural system, which he did not, Ford practiced the first while anathematizing the second. In attacking the Jews, in other words, the car manufacturer was, in effect, attacking modernity whose celebration of novelty and change, of “confetti, limbs, lingerie and spangles,” he despised.

Although America’s cultural custodians, from former American presidents to leaders of the American Jewish Committee, worked quietly behind the scenes to convince Ford that his negative views benefited no one, least of all himself, it took a courtroom trial to silence him. Taken to court in 1925 by Aaron Sapiro, organizer of the National Council of Farmers’ Cooperative Marketing Associations, for libel — Sapiro had been described in the Dearborn Independent as the leader of a Jewish conspiracy to exploit America’s farmers — Ford eventually agreed not only to settle with him but also, in 1927, to issue a public apology to all Sapiro’s co-religionists.

In it, the “people’s tycoon” expressed deep embarrassment that his newspaper had been “made the medium for resurrecting exploded fictions,” referring obliquely to “Protocols.” “I am fully aware of the virtues of the Jewish people as a whole,” he went on to say before asking for forgiveness “for the harm that I have unintentionally committed” and then promising to “retract so far as lies within my power the offensive charges laid at their door.”

In the end, it wasn’t the courts or the newspapers or even Henry Ford that had the final word on this imbroglio; fittingly enough, it was popular culture, that aspect of modern life that Ford so mightily disliked. For no sooner did the industrialist issue his apology than the Happiness Boys, a team of vaudeville singers, recorded “Since Henry Ford Apologized to Me,” a jaunty dialect song that irreverently cataloged all the things that American Jews were now apt to do since Ford’s apology: feeding him matzo balls and gefilte fish should he come to call, naming a child “Henry” and buying stock in the Ford Motor Co. Why, there was even talk that “instead of Lizzies,” Ford’s newest cars would be called “Jakes.” In this instance, at least, America’s Jews had the last laugh.

For more on the history and reception of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” be sure to visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, where the exhibition A Dangerous Lie: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is currently on view.

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