Book Reviews

Book Review: Henry Ford’s War on Jews and the Legal Battle against Hate Speech

Published by Stanford University Press.

Published by Stanford University Press.

Henry Ford’s War on Jews and the Legal Battle against Hate Speech. By Victoria Saker Woeste. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. 2012

Victoria Saker Woeste’s, Henry Ford’s War on Jews and the Legal Battle Against Hate Speech contributes significantly to our understanding of the dramatic libel lawsuit brought by Aaron Sapiro against the American automotive pioneer. Woeste’s meticulously researched book thoughtfully examines the complex circumstances and personalities behind the case, the intricacies of the trial, and the implications of its resolution. She analyzes Sapiro’s suit within the framework of American libel law and argues compellingly that, contrary to most interpretations, the case represented a lost opportunity in the struggle against hate speech.

The book draws on previously published biographies, as well as new archival research, trial transcripts, and interviews to portray the major players in the lawsuit and the conflicts among them. In the years following WWI, Henry Ford increasingly embraced anti-Semitism, and in 1920 turned his newspaper, The Dearborn Independent, into a medium through which to voice his concerns about “the disproportionate influence of the Jews on politics, culture, entertainment, diplomacy, industrial capitalism, and the state” (47).  Over the next several years, Ford published a series of accusations about individual Jews and “International Jewry.” Louis Marshall, a prominent attorney and President of the American Jewish Committee, was among those targeted by the paper. He responded by urging restraint, arguing that Jews were better off demonstrating good citizenship than stooping to respond to anti-Semites. The paper also attacked Aaron Sapiro, a lawyer involved in organizing farmers’ marketing cooperatives.  Incensed by charges of personal and professional misconduct, Sapiro rejected Marshall’s path of restraint, and opted instead to sue one of the most powerful men in America for libel.

Woeste’s book chronicles the case of Sapiro v. Ford, detailing the strategies employed by defense and prosecution, and contrasting Sapiro’s quest for vindication in an individual libel suit with Marshall’s behind the scenes pursuit of a means to silence the voices of anti-Semitism. In many accounts, Marshall emerges as the hero, ending the legal proceedings by extracting from Ford an apology to “the Jews” and a promise to stop publishing anti-Semitic material. Woeste questions this interpretation of events. She argues that Marshall might have used the apology to reinforce the still ambiguous concept of group, rather than individual, libel in American law, thus effectively combatting anti-Jewish hate speech. Instead, she depicts him as outmaneuvered by Ford, who appreciated that an apology would free him from the headaches of the lawsuit, but without legal enforceability, offer virtually nothing of substance to either Sapiro or the fight against anti-Semitism.

Woeste’s study clearly reveals the pervasiveness of anti-Jewish sentiment in American society, but interestingly it also demonstrates its limits. Woeste takes note of the many farmers, organizers, and ultimately, jurors who supported Sapiro. This aspect of the case is worth further consideration for what it reveals about the complexities of American anti-Semitism during the interwar period, and the difficulty of determining how best to fight it. Woeste’s book, however, offers a fascinating and rewarding account of Sapiro v. Ford, and what the case teaches us about hate speech, libel law, and the anti-Jewish crusade of an American icon.

Jessica Cooperman, Muhlenberg College



One thought on “Book Review: Henry Ford’s War on Jews and the Legal Battle against Hate Speech

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