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  • Henry Ford's War on Jews and the Legal Battle Against Free Speech by Victoria Saker Woeste
  • Jeffrey S. Gurock (bio)
Henry Ford's War on Jews and the Legal Battle Against Free Speech. By Victoria Saker Woeste. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2012. xiixii + 408408 pp.

Victoria Saker Woeste recounts with great authority and impressive detail the oft-told history of Henry Ford's attacks against American Jewry that appeared during the early 1920s in the pages of the Dearborn Independent, the famous car maker's newspaper. The principle actors in this controversy come alive through extensive biographies of Ford; Louis Marshall, that era's consummate, if frequently self-designated, defender of Jewish rights in America; and Aaron Sapiro, the "outsider" possessed of no strong communal connections who fought his often lonely battle to punish the anti-Semite. A Jewish lawyer who headed up a farm cooperative movement, Sapiro courageously took Ford not only to task but to court over his publication of false allegations. As an unabashed believer in Jewish conspiracies, Ford, whose newspaper in 1920 had brought the [End Page 331] notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion to American readers, identified Sapiro specifically as the spearhead of a Semitic attempt to take over American agriculture. One particularly offensive headline screamed in April 1924: "Exploiting Farm Organizations: Jewish Monopoly Traps Under Guise of Cooperative Marketing" (145). Legal scholars, as well as courtroom buffs, will appreciate Woeste's presentation of deposition arguments and depiction of courtroom scenes based on a close examination of trial transcripts and national press coverage of the proceedings.

Though Ford's active era of anti-Semitism ended in 1927 when he sent an ultimately disingenuous letter of apology to the American Jewish community—Woeste convincingly demonstrates that Marshall pushed for, and ghost wrote, the document—the industrialist continued a more surreptitious campaign through his commercial outlets in South America and through his connections in Germany. Woeste wisely follows the trails of Ford's offensive into the era of the rise of Nazism and into the eager hands of Adolf Hitler. By extending the story beyond both his public contretemps and the borders of the United States, Woeste is able to emphasize that although Marshall was pleased with his efforts to have Ford back down, in the end printed apologias do not have the power of law or court decisions.

Indeed, it is in her limning of her second story line tracing how the Ford imbroglio underscores the multiple modalities of early twentieth-century American Jewish response to anti-Semitism that Woeste makes her most important contribution. In a most telling remark, she observes that "no matter what anti-Semites claimed to the contrary, there simply was no unified Jewish community; rather, leading and rank-and-file Jewish Americans were divided by Ford's attacks and unclear about how to respond" (84). For Leo Franklin, the local rabbi who just happened to live down the block from the anti-Semite, courting of his good will through the cultivation of a personal relationship was the non-confrontational way of moving Ford away from Jew-baiting. If anything, it was an act of faith that moved the religious leader to speak of the antagonist's possible rehabilitation by "people he knows and trusts" (78). Disdaining what Marshall saw as weak-kneed "conciliation" and entreaties, Marshall opted for activism, albeit of a measured manner (82). Through the auspices of the American Jewish Committee, which by the 1920s he commanded, the plan of attack—under "Marshall Law"—was designed to garner respect and fair treatment for his people in the court of public opinion. Refutation literature was sponsored. Prominent American Christians were encouraged to step up to attest to Jewish contributions. As important for Marshall was what he did not authorize. As Woeste explains, "He beat back suggestions that Ford's allegations be met in [End Page 332] open debate . . . opposed the idea of congressional investigations into the Independent's antisemitic campaign and . . . successfully discouraged prominent Jews named in the newspaper from suing for libel" (112). Through all of his activities, the battles were pitched not only as Jewish concerns but as defenses of the rights of...


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