How a 1921 Boycott Helped Silence “The Global Leader of Anti-Semites”
By Robert Liftig, EdD
I always wondered why my family bought only Chevrolets – mostly from my Uncle Henry, whose father-in-law, Dr. Jack Cooley, it was always added, was one of the first Jews in the country to be allowed to own a car dealership.
Why didn’t my family buy…Fords?
The comedian Will Rogers famously said, “Ford used to have it in for Jewish people – until he saw them in Chevrolets.” And have it in for them, Ford did; until the “silent boycott” of American Jews against the Ford Motor Company, and the parade in Hartford in 1921, helped put an end to his antisemitic ramblings.
By 1918, Henry Ford was the richest man in the country and admittedly one of our greatest innovators. At the height of his fame he bought The Dearborn Independent newspaper and soon after claimed to have discovered “proof” that Jews were the secret hand behind all of the world’s troubles. Beginning in May 1920, under the general heading “The International Jew,” The Independent launched a series of articles alleging Jewish conspiracies in every aspect of life, and claiming that corruption on Wall Street, the ravages of the Civil War, World War I, the recent Black Sox scandal, the moral decline of America as witnessed in American cinema, and even the assassination of Abraham Lincoln could be traced to …you know who.
Ford’s ranting was required reading for his employees, and The Independent was ordered to be sold in Ford dealerships across the nation. Dealers who fulfilled Ford’s subscription quota were given a new car as a prize. Reprints of “The International Jew” made their way across the Atlantic to Germany, and were put into a book, The Eternal Jew – a best-seller – surprise! – with the author listed as “Heinrich Ford.” Hitler kept a portrait of Ford on his desk and, in 1923, once told a Chicago Tribune reporter, when asked about how he would feel if Ford ran for the American presidency: “I wish I could send some of my shock troops to Chicago and other American cities to help in the elections. We look on Heinrich Ford as the leader of the growing Fascist party in America.”
Two years later, Hitler used The Eternal Jew as the inspiration, template, and major source for his own ranting in Mein Kampf – another German best-seller – in which he said, “only a single great man, Ford” was able to defy Jewish influence.
Fortunately, Ford’s antisemitism was not appreciated much in America, and resulted in serious consequences for both him and his company: sales declines, public criticism, and libel lawsuits filed against The Independent by Jews across the nation. Still, because Ford was such a revered figure, the American Jewish Committee did not want to “officially” take him on; instead, they decided on a kind of guerilla warfare.
American Jews boycotted Ford products in almost every geographic area; but especially in urban centers, and more specifically in the Northeast, where most of the American Jewish population was settled. But even in the Southwest, Ford dealers noted they were losing their Jewish customers. The prospects of higher Ford sales were increasingly dim in the New York area, where sales manager Gaston Flaintiff wrote pleading letters to Ford, begging him to stop what he was doing. (Ford was unmoved, as yet.) And, at home in Detroit, Ford’s neighbor, Rabbi Leo M. Franklin, refused Ford’s annual gift of a custom-built car.
A wonderful example of how American Jews fought back is witnessed by the absence of any Ford product in the May 1921 parade in Hartford, which welcomed Chaim Weitzmann and Albert Einstein to the city. It was more than just by accident that, out of the more than 400 vehicles in the procession, there were no Ford automobiles to be counted. This fact, however, can only mostly be found only in Jewish local histories; there was no mention of the boycott in the Hartford Courant’s otherwise extensive and sympathetic front page cover story, which called May 12 “the day of days for Jews.”
The headlines read:
ZIONIST DELEGATES WILDLY ACCLAIMED BY HARTFORD JEWS
Freedom of City Extended –
$75,000 Raised in Free Will Contributions For Palestine Fund
VISITORS INCLUDE PROFESSOR EINSTEIN
Even so, by 1927, the message had gotten through to Henry Ford, who acknowledged a decline in car sales of up to 500,000; and began negotiations with the American Jewish Committee. Shortly thereafter he shut down The Independent; ordered five truckloads of “The International Jew” to be burned; paid for Ford advertisements in Yiddish newspapers; and insisted that all of his publications in Europe be stopped. He also issued the following apology:
“I have given consideration to the series of articles concerning Jews which have since 1920 appeared in The Dearborn Independent…and in pamphlet form under the title “The International Jew”…To my great regret I have learned that Jews generally, and particularly those of this country, not only resent these publications as promoting anti-Semitism, but regard me as their enemy…I am deeply mortified…I deem it to be my duty as an honorable man to make amends for the wrongs done to the Jews as fellowmen and brothers by asking their forgiveness for the harm I have unintentionally committed, by retracting as far as lies with my power the offensive charges laid at their door by these publications, and by giving them the unqualified assurance that henceforth they may look to me for friendship and goodwill”.
It was, however, too late for this story to have a happy ending. The damage had been done. Across the waters, the monster who was Henry Ford’s most enthusiastic fan, the man who said, “I regard Henry Ford as my inspiration,” was choosing his knives and sharpening them, and preparing to exterminate all the Jews of Europe.
Those wishing more background on this fascinating story are directed to The Transfer Agreement by Edwin Black and to the archives of the Hartford Courant and the Hartford Times.
Dr. Robert A. Liftig is an adjunct professor of ethics at Fairfield University and a freelance writer. He lives in Westport.