Ford’s anti-Jewish beliefs are well known. Not well understood is his singular role in unleashing a new era of anti-Semitism, a modern strain of an ancient poison built upon the themes of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. You can glimpse Ford’s influence in the casual anti-Semitism of Donald Trump, who has deployed barely coded references to “globalists” and to “international banks” plotting secretly with one of his Democratic rivals to weaken the U.S. for their own enrichment; in Elon Musk’s signal-boosting of anti-Semites and his suggestion that George Soros “appears to want nothing less than the destruction of western civilization”; and in a surge in anti-Jewish harassment and hate crimes around the world, including the 2018 massacre at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue.
Often, Ford’s anti-Semitism is portrayed as an unfortunate footnote to a storied career—the Henry Ford Museum describes his “descent into anti-Semitism” as a “sad chapter in Henry Ford’s life”—but it was arguably the most significant part of the automaker’s legacy. In other words, Ford was one of the 20th century’s most dangerous anti-Jewish propagandists, and he also made cars. Making sense of the current moment of mounting anti-Semitism requires examining Ford’s outsize part in its origins.
Ford’s biographers have struggled to trace his insidious anti-Semitism to its source. Ford himself suggested that the clarifying moment occurred in late 1915, as he steamed to Norway with a group of pacifists on a quixotic mission to broker an end to World War I, a freelance diplomacy effort the papers derided as “Ford’s folly” and the “Ship of Fools.”
“On that ship were two very prominent Jews,” Ford explained six years later. “We had not been to sea 200 miles before these two Jews began telling me of the power of the Jewish race, how they controlled the world through their control of gold, and that the Jew, and no one but the Jew, could stop the war … They said, and they believed, that the Jews had started the war; that they would continue it as long as they wished.”
Yet Ford appears to have been steeped in anti-Semitic beliefs well before setting sail. Rosika Schwimmer, the activist with whom Ford hatched the ill-fated voyage, recalled that during her first meeting with the industrialist, a month before departing for Europe, he declared, unprompted, “I know who caused the war—German Jewish bankers!” Indeed, to Ford, the conspirators at the heart of the Jews’ concentric plots were German Jewish financiers. His newspaper would later fixate on the Frankfurt-born tycoon Jacob Schiff; Schiff’s partners in the investment bank of Kuhn, Loeb & Co.; and members of the Warburg banking dynasty, who had close personal and professional ties to Schiff and his family.