This past week saw three exercises in revisiting history: the annual ritual, replete with conspiracy theories, of reexamining the Kennedy assassination; the Pulitzer Prize board reconsidering New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty’s prize for his discredited 1930s coverage of Soviet collectivization, and the Ford Foundation acknowledging that several of its pro-Palestinian grantees had channeled their grants into antisemitic, terrorist-apologist activities.
Looking anew at history is not always useful, as is the case with the Kennedy assassination, or welcomed — such as might be said for post-Zionist theory. Yet public exposure and its accompanying pressure are usually required to launch the most-needed second-looks. That has been the case with both Duranty’s Pulitzer Prize and the Ford Foundation’s allocations.
Our community’s outrage over the foundation’s funding decisions was magnified by our sense of history: specifically, the antisemitic history of Henry Ford, the automobile innovator whose wealth planted the seeds for the largesse of today’s Ford Foundation.
Over the years the Ford Motor Company, the Ford family and the Ford Foundation made amends for Henry’s view and activities, which included publication of the notorious “The International Jew.” As some of those mended fences began cracking this month, the foundation moved quickly to apologize and to change the way it does business, steps warmly received by Jewish organizations.
It is the attention being paid to the Ford Foundation that now provides the context to call upon the entirely separate Ford Motor Company to look anew at how it views its founder, Henry Ford. This reconsideration is made urgent by this year’s much-celebrated and reported-on Ford Motor Company centennial.
While the reverberations from investigative journalist Edwin Black’s expose on the Ford Foundation ricocheted across the Jewish world, philanthropic board rooms and the halls of Congress, the revisionist views of the Ford Motor Company’s official historian, Robert Kreipke, continue to be promulgated unchecked.
A sympathetic piece in the June 8 issue of the Chicago Tribune is indicative of the soft treatment being given to Kreipke’s history of Ford. In a 3,200-word article, the Tribune addresses Ford’s relations with Jews in exactly one sentence: “Though winning the patent battle made Ford popular with other automakers, he had his troubles with the Jewish community over charges of antisemitism.”
The only comment on the views toward Jews of a man to whom Adolf Hitler awarded the Third Reich’s Grand Cross is given by Kreipke, the company historian.
“Adolf Hitler admired Ford for putting the world on wheels, and so he hung Ford’s picture in his office and that led many people to connect Ford with being antisemitic,” Kreipke explains to the Tribune. “Also, Ford never liked money lenders. He once said: ‘People who make money off of money alone are anti-productive and contribute nothing to society.’ At the time, many money lenders were Jewish,’ Kreipke added.”
So, there you have it: poor Henry Ford, passive victim of unfair Jewish criticisms and financiers. Just in time for the Ford Motor Company’s centennial, its founder is getting a historical “overhaul.”
The Chicago Jewish Community Relations Council protested the whitewashing of Ford’s record. The only concession we were able to draw from Kreipke was that Ford made a mistake by “allowing antisemitic articles to be published in the Dearborn Independent newspaper.”
Here again the corporate historian of the company founded by Ford — perhaps the most significant 20th-century captain of industry — describes him as but a placid observer when it comes to antisemitism, a quiescent bystander to Jew-hatred who merely “allowed” others to spew their venom.
To no avail, we pointed out to Kreipke that Jewish attitudes toward Henry Ford were based on much more than the carmaker’s dubious honor of having his photo hang on Hitler’s wall. Like so much else in his life, Ford fully earned the title “antisemite.”
Ford owned “The Dearborn Independent,” a weekly newspaper whose series of 91 antisemitic articles became the basis for the widely distributed four-volume book, “The International Jew.” The Anti-Defamation League characterized these Ford-funded screeds, which draw on the delusional conspiracy theories of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” as the “most vicious antisemitic attacks ever published in the English language.”
When challenged about the “Protocols” in 1921, shortly after the articles began appearing, Ford said “they fit in with what is going on and they have fitted the world situation up to this time.” In short, his was the first truly nationwide anti-Jewish campaign in American history. And for decades since, those publications — his subsequent apologies notwithstanding — have provided the “intellectual nourishment” upon which thousands of bigots were weaned. Indeed, this past summer, aides to Malaysian Prime Minister Mahatir Mohamad distributed “The International Jew” at an official party event in his honor, just months before his now-infamous “Jews rule the world by proxy” farewell address to the Organization of the Islamic Conference.
Similarly, we reminded Kreipke, Ford’s view of Jews was not formed by Jewish money-lenders. Early 20th-century American Jews were not part of the major financial houses from which Henry Ford was likely seeking funding. And why, regardless of religion, would Ford be hostile to “money-lenders?” Didn’t the Ford Motor Company’s growth, and hence Ford’s personal wealth, require access to capital?
In both depictions — the supposed Jewish view of a photo and Ford’s view of stealth Jewish financiers — Kreipke twists this extraordinary entrepreneur into an inert casualty of Jewish power.
Today, neither the Ford Foundation nor the Ford Motor Company is the same entity it was under Henry Ford’s leadership. But as the foundation rights its recent wrongs and the Jewish community looks ahead to an improved relationship with the philanthropy, the company historian has yet to fully acknowledge who Henry Ford was and what he did.
As the foundation undergoes needed repairs, the Ford Motor Company needs to readjust its rearview mirror. Its current settings are blurring the historical reality and threaten the good will generated by decades of a harsh but honest reckoning of Henry Ford by his corporate successors.
Jay Tcath is director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago.