This Day in Jewish History

1927: Henry Ford Says Sorry for anti-Semitic Spew

Jewish publisher's libel suit led the auto manufacturing mogul and publisher to apologize for anti-Semitic articles in his newspaper.

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On July 16, 1927, Aaron Sapiro and Henry Ford reached an out-of-court settlement that ended the libel suit the Jewish lawyer had brought against the Detroit auto manufacturer and publisher. The case was perhaps the key element in convincing Ford, who had used his newspaper and other publications to peddle an ongoing and vicious series of anti-Jewish theories, to back down and even disavow the lies that had been made in his name.

In 1919, Ford (1863-1947) began publishing the Dearborn Independent, a small and failing weekly he had purchased a year earlier. Every Ford dealership in the United States was obligated to distribute the paper, whose circulation reached a high of 700,000 readers. The newspaper was a regular outlet for a wide array of Ford’s prejudices and convictions against Jews, including the belief that “German-Jewish bankers” had caused World War I, a conflict in which Ford was opposed to American involvement.

In 91 consecutive issues of the Independent, beginning on May 22, 1920 with an article called “The International Jew: The World’s Problem,” a series of pieces, published with Ford’s byline, intended to elucidate and explore that problem. With a lot of space to fill, Ford’s editor, William Cameron, turned to a translated version of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” for evidence of the Jewish conspiracy to rule world affairs. Originally published in Russia in 1903, this notorious forgery purported to be the records of a 19th-century meeting of Jewish leaders in which they discussed their plan for global domination.

At the time that the book came into the hands of Ford’s editors, it was little known in the United States, a situation they did their best to reverse. Much of the material that appeared in the Independent’s anti-Semitic articles was published as well in book form, in the four volumes of “The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem.” The book is said to have had a prominent place in the private library of Adolf Hitler.

In 1924, Ford decided to focus on a Jewish plot to control America’s farm-food distribution system. He began with an article with the catchy title of “Jewish Exploitation of the American Farmer's Organizations: Monopoly Traps Operate Under the Guise of Marketing Associations," which explored the alleged conspiracy of Jewish farmers, lawyers, merchants and others behind the cooperative agricultural system.

At the heart of this conspiracy was Aaron Sapiro (1854-1959), a former rabbinical student-turned-California lawyer who had been highly successful in organizing farm cooperatives, first in his state and later nationally. Sapiro’s program intended to eliminate middlemen in the sale of agricultural produce and guarantee higher revenues for producers, and by 1925, nearly 900,000 American farmers were participating in it. According to the Independent, the Sapiro Plan had "turned millions away from the pockets of the men who till the soil and into the hands of the Jews and their followers."

This was too much for the headstrong Sapiro, and he decided to sue the business titan for libel. He sought a reward of $1 million, a large sum at the time and one that made for splashy headlines.

After more than two years of preliminary legal procedures, the Sapiro suit came to trial in Detroit in March 1927. Leading Ford’s defense was James A. Reed, a serving U.S. senator from Missouri. The climax of the trial was to be the appearance on the witness stand of none other than Henry Ford himself, who had been subpoenaed by Sapiro. The night before his scheduled testimony, Ford was in a mysterious automobile accident, in which his car was supposedly pushed off the road and into a gulley by a Studebaker. After being rushed to Henry Ford Hospital, in Detroit, he turned out to be only mildly bruised, but as his attending doctor told a reporter, it was the “shock of the mishap” that mattered.

Ford’s appearance on the stand was thus delayed, and in the meantime his lawyers began grilling Sapiro on the stand. It was at this stage that the Ford defense team alleged that Sapiro’s attorneys had tried to buy off a juror. The juror had spoken to a reporter, and the accusations made big headlines. The judge declared a mistrial.

A new trial was announced for September. Before it could commence, however, Ford’s people secretly made contact with Louis Marshall, a prominent Jewish attorney and one of the founders of the American Jewish Committee. Marshall had long been troubled by Ford’s public anti-Semitism, and he challenged him publicly on it, with little success. Now, however, Ford asked Marshall to draw up a letter of apology and explanation for him to sign. In it Ford was to ask for forgiveness for having published the “Protocols,” which he acknowledged, "have been demonstrated, as I learn, to be gross forgeries."

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A “deeply mortified” Ford, in the letter prepared by Marshall, revealed that he had learned that "Jews generally, and particularly those of the country, not only resent these publications as promoting anti-Semitism, but regard me as their enemy." Ford expressed his admiration for the Jewish people and their “unselfish interest in public welfare,” and asserted that "Those who know me can bear witness that it is not in my nature to inflict injury upon and occasion pain to anybody, and that it has been my effort to free myself from prejudice."

Marshall sent the apology he had written to Ford’s offices, and, after speaking with the boss, Harry Bennett, one of Ford’s investigators, signed it in Ford’s name before it was released to the press.

Ford also agreed to pay all of Sapiro’s legal expenses, as well as those of another Jewish libel-suit plaintiff, Herman Bernstein, and both men dropped their cases against the car manufacturer.

In general, Jewish organizations and journals responded with enthusiasm and credulity to Ford’s about-face. So happy did some Jews appear to be to have Henry Ford in their corner that even Louis Marshall, the man who had engineered the apology, expressed his amazement to a colleague at the willingness of some of his co-religionists to “declare … a Mordecai” someone whom “only last week … was regarded as a Hamen.”

The out-of-court settlement between Ford and Sapiro was announced on this day in 1927. In December of that year, the Dearborn Independent ceased publication.