Varieties of Jewish Response to Ford's Anti-Semitic Crusade (1920-1927)

Varieties of Jewish Response to Ford's Anti-Semitic Crusade (1920-1927)

A Story by Evyn Rubin

How did the American Jewish community respond to Henry Ford's mass production of anti-Semitic propaganda?


How did the American Jewish community respond to Henry Ford's mass production of anti-Semitic propaganda?

1.  Many Jewish people resolved or recommitted to live their lives as good people, to conduct themselves in a principled way, so as to refute Ford's negative portrayal of the Jews.  Rabbi Leo Franklin, who had once been Ford's neighbor and friend, returned the car Ford had given him as a gift.

2.  Boycott of Ford Motor vehicles  --  Jews spontaneously chose not to buy a Ford, and encouraged their friends and business associates also to buy a different brand of car or truck.  A motorized parade in Hartford, Connecticut, welcoming scientists Albert Einstein and Chaim Weizmann, included four hundred cars, and most deliberately, not one was a Ford.  It was believed that the boycott of Ford Motor Company had caused their annual sales to drop, for the first time since the invention of the Model T.

3.  Letters to Ford  --  Ford historians report that four out of five letters Ford received about the "Dearborn Independent" series were protest letters.  Many of these letters called Ford's hate campaign "un-American" and demanded a retraction.

4.  Sermons  --  Many rabbis delivered sermons condemning Ford's propaganda and some of these sermons were published in local newspapers, thereby educating the general public.  Rabbi Joseph Silverman called Ford's accusations "vile and diabolical."  Rabbi Samuel Schulman called anti-Semitism "a slimy serpent" imported from Europe, and urged American Jews to respond in a way worthy of both their heritages.  Rabbi Stephen Wise said Henry Ford had blood on his hands, just like someone who participates in a pogrom. 

5.  Petitions  --  One petition, organized by Louis Marshall, was national in scope and brought together Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews to write a protest that emphasized the falsehood of Ford's accusations.  Their petition demonstrated that the "Protocols," the European import quoted extensively by Ford, was well-known to be a blatant forgery.  Another petition was local to the Detroit area and represented two synagogues and a B'nai B'rith Lodge.  The writing of this petition was lead by Rabbi Leo Franklin. 

6.  Letters to the editor, articles, books  --  Jews who liked to write found outlets for their protests against Ford.  At least two books were written, including one in Yiddish that said Ford's campaign would be laughable except for the fact that he was a famous person.

7.  Arguments with vendors of the propaganda  --  In some big cities, the "Dearborn Independent" was available at news stands.  Jewish people walking by would often confront the vendors, especially if the vendors were hawking the paper, that is, calling out the headlines.  Occasionally, an argument would go too far, and a physical scuffle or petty vandalism would occur.  Ford car dealers also sold the paper, and were required to do so by Henry Ford.  In some places, local Jews visited the dealers to express their concern and disappointment.

8.  Local laws controlling distribution  --  In some locations, opponents of the "Dearborn Independent" passed laws prohibiting the circulation by libraries of any hate literature, or its sale by news vendors.  These ordinances were controversial because to some people this seemed like a form of censorship in a land where freedom of speech was valued.

9.  Libel suits  --  At least four individuals who were attacked by Ford in the "Dearborn Independent" filed lawsuits.  Some Jewish leaders cautioned against this approach, fearing it would give Ford free publicity.  But Aaron Sapiro's libel suit was widely appreciated by the Jewish community, and effectively showed Ford's true colors as a peddler of lies and fraud.  Sapiro was a lawyer who helped small farmers organize marketing co-operatives to get a better price for their produce.  His suit came to court in 1927, causing Ford to close down the "Dearborn Independent," and give the Jewish people a (very questionable) apology.

10.  Miscellaneous and unknown examples  --  Some instances of protest do not fit these categories because of their unique nature, such as the  film maker who threatened Ford with endless images of broken down Ford cars in his news reels.  Other instances of protest were not recorded but surely existed:  what a brave student said to a bigoted classmate, what an old grandmother said to correct a misguided neighbor.  Once, when Aaron Sapiro was complimented for the fine job he did standing up to Ford's libel, Sapiro said that he was only doing what his mother had taught him to do, and what his wife expected him to do.  His remark reveals that part of the Jewish response was moral support and wisdom, given behind the scenes. 


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notes on sources

Chapter Three of Poole and Poole's book, Who Financed Hitler,  entitled "Ford and Hitler"  has an excellent summary of Ford's treachery, but also includes numerous examples of Jewish and general opposition.  I followed up on many of the leads in this chapter.      

I used the index to the NY Times extensively to find relevant articles about Ford during this period and the Jewish and general reactions to his crusade.  I examined these sources on microfilm.  The NY Times reprinted a few of the sermons and petitions that protested Ford, and covered in detail Aaron Sapiro's libel suit.  

Readers' Guild to Periodical Literature

Henry Ford and the Jews  by Neil Baldwin, 2001

Not Free to Desist by Naomi W. Cohen is about the American Jewish Committee and contains details of Louis Marshall's confrontations with Ford and his acceptance of Ford's pseudo-apology in 1927.    

Although I disagree with some of her conclusions, I appreciate Victoria Oeste's having read  Aaron Sapiro's correspondence, archived at the Judah Magnes Museum, and his remark about the influence of his mother and his wife came from there.

Official history of Ford Motor Company, by Allan Nevins, reports on the letters Ford received in response.           


© 2020 Evyn Rubin

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Added on June 17, 2019
Last Updated on January 3, 2020
Tags: protest, resistance, Jewish Americans, Jewish history, Henry Ford, prejudice, libel, Dearborn Independent, anti-Semitism