The Henry Ford: Through a Jewish Lens
By Vivian Henoch, Editor myJewishDetroit
November 1, 2018
A “capitalist who hated capital,” a Progressive who longed to return to a simpler time, a populist who tried to prevent unionism among his employees, and a technocrat with passivist tendencies, Henry Ford (1863-1947) was a complicated man. He had an equally complicated relationship with the Jewish community.
Ford’s deeply anti-Semitic views are well documented. For much of the 1920s, he published 91 vitriolic articles in his hometown newspaper, the Dearborn Independent (which he had purchased in 1918). In them he blamed Jews for everything from causing World War I to manipulating politics, manufacturing, finance and government—all part of a conspiracy to take over the world. In 1927, after being put on trial for libel, Ford publicly admitted his error and promised to discontinue his anti-Semitic articles. He died in 1947, after claiming that Jewish bankers had caused World War II.
At the same time, Henry Ford worked closely with Jewish leaders, including architect Albert Kahn (who designed buildings for the Highland Park and Rouge plants and the Ford Engineering Library). He counted Leo M. Franklin, rabbi of Detroit’s Temple Beth El from 1899 to 1920 and one of the founders of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), as a close friend and neighbor.
“The Henry Ford…THROUGH A JEWISH LENS” acknowledges this contradiction. A one-day collaboration between the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan (JHSM) and The Henry Ford, it both examines Ford’s bigotry and celebrates Jews as American innovators, designers, and entrepreneurs. The event will be held from 3:30 to 7 p.m. on Sunday, November 18 at The Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation™ in Dearborn.
The program will begin at 4 p.m. with a presentation by Steven Watts, Ph.D., award-winning professor of history at the University of Missouri and author of The People’s Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century (Vintage, 2005). His talk, Henry Ford and the Jewish Question, will address the origins, manifestations, and impact of Henry Ford’s anti-Semitism.
“Henry Ford, the man who put America on wheels, was among a handful of individuals who most shaped the nature of modern life in the United States,” Watts notes. “But like all great individuals, he had an Achilles heel. Sadly, both for him and for American society, it was anti-Semitism. Ford’s prejudices against the Jewish people led him into a campaign that forever tarnished his historical reputation.”
Following Watts’ talk, there will be a question-and-answer session. Afterward, attendees will enjoy light refreshments and a dozen pop-up exhibits showcasing rarely seen artifacts from the museum’s collections that highlight Jewish contributions to American life. Objects range from colonial to modern, including a 1906 Rapid bus (created by designer Max Grabowsky), children’s toys, a Kristallnacht desk, and Alexander Hamilton’s ties to the early American Jewish community.
“This monumental conversation is long overdue,” said Risha B. Ring, JHSM President. “We are looking forward to addressing the issue of anti-Semitism right up front, and to highlighting the enormous achievements of Jewish innovators through The Henry Ford’s collections.”
Ticket prices include all-day access to The Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation™, Greenfield Village, and “Rockwell, Roosevelt & the Four Freedoms,” a powerful traveling exhibit showcasing Norman Rockwell’s 1943 iconic depictions of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s four ideals (“Freedom of Speech,” “Freedom of Worship,” “Freedom from Fear,” and “Freedom from Want”). The program concludes with a very special performance by Detroit Symphony Orchestra Associate Concertmaster Kimberly Kennedy. She will play the 1709 “Siberian” Stradivari violin, nicknamed for the Russian violinist who once owned it before Henry Ford acquired it in 1928.
“We’re thrilled to collaborate with The Henry Ford on this momentous event,” said JHSM Vice-President Barbara Cohn. “This unique program, with one-day access to these rarely seen artifacts, is a must-see for anyone interested in Jewish innovators, their contributions to American technology, and social transformation.”
Tickets are available through the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan by calling 248-432-5517 or at michjewishhistory.org. Prices are $36 for JHSM members, $54 for non-members, and $18 for students. Sponsorships and volunteer opportunities are available.
“The Henry Ford…THROUGH A JEWISH LENS” is made possible by JHSM’s organizational sponsors including ADL, and organizational partners including the Detroit Jewish News, the Jewish Community Center of Metro Detroit, and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit.