100 years ago, this winter, desperate for a platform to explore why America rejected his crackpot “peace crusade,” Henry Ford purchased The Dearborn Independent. Before long, this small-town newspaper began turning out anti-Semitic screed after screed. Eventually, Ford’s pamphleteering evolved into the four-volume “The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem,”
which would sell two million copies on three continents in 20 languages. Indeed, the hate from Dearborn flowed like volcanic lava. Sadly, rather than using this anniversary as a teachable moment as to how easily Jew hatred can spread, the City of Dearborn would prefer to sweep it under the rug.
Here's what’s happened: A courageous journalist and historian, named Bill McGraw, published a story in The Dearborn Historian, last week, that laid out Henry Ford’s dark side for all to see. But Dearborn Mayor John B. O’Reilly couldn’t handle the truth. He ordered the city-funded publication to remain in the warehouse and promptly fired McGraw. Three months after the Pittsburgh massacre, a politician censored a biographical piece on America’s most notorious anti-Semite and canned the writer. Never mind the fact that Nazi youth leader Baldur von Shirach confessed at Nuremberg that he embraced Hitler after reading the German translation of "The International Jew." Or that Hitler kept a portrait of Ford behind his desk and once offered to send men from his SS battalion to help Ford because America has produced “only a single great man.”
Rather than dealing with the fact that Henry Ford was our nation’s leading merchant of hate, Mayor O’Reilly chose to protect the cleaner narrative at all costs. To him, the only acceptable story is that Ford was nothing if not an American hero, a genius from modest farming stock who delivered the gift of mobility to the masses. The truth is messier, and messy truths are often the most useful for communities that want to become better. The Mayor could lead the way by confronting the fact that Ford’s publishing empire mainstreamed hate in America, inspired Hitler, and validated him to his Nazi followers.
The tropes that Henry Ford peddled persist today, but in more modern forms. We saw, at Tree of Life, that it only takes one madman to infer online anti-Semitic canards as a call-to-action.
The Mayor’s explanation is that he wants to protect the struggling residents of Dearborn who hold all things Ford as a source of pride. This makes no sense. Henry Ford’s anti-Semitic campaign is already mentioned in most school textbooks — especially in Michigan. Just as important has been The Ford Motor Company’s longstanding commitment to make amends for its founder’s bigotry, including its underwriting of Steven Spielberg’s "Schindler’s List" on national television, sans commercials.
Conventional wisdom has it that Henry Ford’s anti-Semitic fury was largely spent by 1927. That year, with Model T sales down, Ford was also frightened by a $1 million libel suit brought against him by Aaron Sapiro, a California agricultural reformer. Ford interceded with prominent Jewish attorney Louis Marshall of the American Jewish Committee, which convinced him not only to disavow publicly his own anti-Semitic crusade but also to close down The Dearborn Independent.
This supposedly was the end of Henry Ford’s crazy Jew hatred — but it wasn’t. In the 1930s, as the new United Auto Workers Union militantly organized Ford plants, he became even more paranoid about “Jewish conspiracies.” In 1938, as Nazi Germany absorbed Austria, Ford made the mistake of accepting a 75th birthday from Hitler’s Consulate in Detroit the Grand Cross of the Supreme Order of the German Eagle, the Third Reich’s highest award to foreigners. He also became a close friend of rabble-rousing anti-Semitic preacher Gerald L. K. Smith. Then, in 1940, he admitted he was sure that Jews were conspiring to compel the U.S. into a new world war.
Why did O’Reilly really try to suppress historic truth? Perhaps the media can ask him whether he had in mind the fact that much of Dearborn’s immigrant population comes from Middle Eastern countries, where Henry Ford remains well-known and admired for his anti-Semitism.
Henry Ford died in 1947. His direct descendants still oversee the Ford Motor Company. They are truly good people, who have succeeded in living down their ancestor’s loathsome legacy by dealing with it head-on. Thanks to Bill McGraw but no thanks to its mayor, so may Dearborn.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper is the Associate Dean, Director Global Social Action Agenda at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a leading Jewish human rights organization. Abraham Cooper has been a longtime activist for Jewish and human rights causes. His extensive involvement in Soviet Jewry included visiting refuseniks, helping to open Moscow’s first Jewish Cultural Center, and lecturing at the Soviet Academy of Sciences and the Sakharov Foundation. In 1977, he came to L.A. to help Rabbi Marvin Hier found the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and for three decades Rabbi Cooper has overseen the Wiesenthal Center’s international social action agenda including worldwide antisemitism and extremist groups, Nazi crimes, Interfaith Relations, the struggle to thwart the anti-Israel Divestment campaign, and worldwide promotion of tolerance education. Widely recognized as an international authority on issues related to digital hate and the Internet, Rabbi Cooper was listed in 2017 by Newsweek among the top most influential Rabbis in the United States. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
Dr. Harold Brackman, a historian, is a consultant to the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
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