By Miranda Bannister
In 1921, outspoken Jewish journalist Herman Bernstein publicly criticized auto giant Henry Ford’s newspaper The Dearborn Independent for endorsing antisemitic conspiracy theories about Jews, including The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The Protocols are one of the most significant antisemitic texts written in modern history and have influenced anti-Jewish movements for over a century.
Following Bernstein’s criticism, Ford doubled down and falsely claimed that Bernstein was his informant and the very source of the information in The Dearborn Independent. In response, Bernstein sued Ford for libel not only against himself but against the Jews of America.
Bernstein won his lawsuit. As part of the terms of the settlement, Ford wrote an apology letter to Henry Bernstein, which now resides in the Museum’s Permanent Collection. This letter is a physical reminder of Bernstein’s personal fight for the truth, and the battles undertaken to combat antisemitism in America.
Henry Ford and the Protocols
Henry Ford was an industrialist and businessman most notable for founding the Ford Motor Company and innovating the assembly line. He was also the owner of The Dearborn Independent, a Michigan-based publication with 700,000 subscribers when it began publishing antisemitic articles in May 1920. The Dearborn Independent would go on to publish 92 separate issues with antisemitic content, including reprints of the infamous and fraudulent antisemitic document the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, called The Protocols for short. These articles were compiled into four volumes, with the full collection of antisemitic content titled The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem. This document is still disseminated to this day, especially among terrorist and hate groups.
The Protocols falsely claim to record a secret meeting between Jewish leaders conspiring for global domination. Their earliest iterations appeared in 1903 in the Russian newspaper Znamya and later gained traction after Russian mystic Sergei Nilus’ reiterated them in the appendix of his 1905 book The Great in the Small: The Coming of the Anti-Christ and the Rule of Satan on Earth.
But The Protocols were completely fabricated. The Times of London revealed in 1921 that the conversation purportedly documented in them was plagiarized from Maurice Joly’s Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu, a fictional political satire published in 1864 that made no reference to Jews. Jewish leaders had been substituted for the figures in the satire, and the dialogue passed off as the true record of a meeting among Jews.
Enter: Herman Bernstein
Bernstein, a Jewish activist, journalist, and founder of the Yiddish newspaper Der Tog, had recently served as foreign correspondent for the New York Herald at the Paris Peace Conference when he decided to take on Ford and The Dearborn Independent. In an article published in the Sentinel on April 1, 1921, Bernstein directly attacked Ford, accused Ford’s newspaper of printing antisemitic content, and proceeded to deconstruct The Protocols. Step by step, Bernstein follows The Protocols on their journey westward from the Znamya to the pages of The Dearborn Independent.
In response, Ford launched a campaign against Bernstein, claiming that Bernstein was his inside-man helping him uncover the conspiracy of Jewish bankers for global domination.
Bernstein recalled of this time, “It was only after I had published these exposés of the ‘Dearborn Independent’ articles and of the ‘Protocols’ that I was singled out for attack and was libelled [sic] by those who spoke in the name of Mr. Ford. To prove the falsity of the accusations against the Jewish people and myself I determined upon the only channel open to me. I instituted a suit for libel.” At his side was Samuel Untermyer, the attorney who represented his case.
Bernstein succeeded in the lawsuit, and Ford was compelled to retract his articles, withdraw them from circulation, and destroy them where possible. As part of the terms of the settlement, Ford wrote a personal letter of apology to Bernstein.
Unfortunately, despite Ford’s retractions the damage was done. Like The Protocols, The International Jew remains in the public domain and circulates amongst hate groups. As Bernstein wrote in The Jewish Daily Bulletin:
There are but few people in this world realize the full extent of the harm that was caused the Jewish people by the dissemination of the poisonous articles all over the world in Henry Ford’s name. Just as Mr. Samuel Untermyer on his recent tour around the world witnessed the far reaching injury to the Jewish people done by these articles, I have found in my extensive travels in various parts of the world during the past few years that Henry Ford’s prestige as one of the world’s foremost industrialists had lent force and given credence to the malicious myths and legends circulated widely by all sorts of anti-Semites who quoted Henry Ford and shielded themselves behind his name.
While the letter represents a step forward in Bernstein’s fight against antisemitism, Ford had already generated ample material for generations of antisemites to come. In our collection, this letter is also a reminder of the prevalence of antisemitism before World War II, even here in the United States.