Henry Ford II and the Jews – Righting a Wrong

Ronnie Schreiber
by Ronnie Schreiber
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henry ford ii and the jews righting a wrong

Henry Ford II and Israeli premier David Ben Gurion, Ford HQ, Dearborn 1951

One of the neatest parts of being a car guy living in the Detroit area is that you hear stories about the people in the auto industry. Some of those stories are obviously apocryphal or urban legends, others have the ring of truth but can’t be verified. Last night at dinner I heard one of those stories, only in this case the source is credible and willing to say it on the record. Whenever the topic of Henry Ford comes up, almost invariably Ford’s shortcomings as a human being get mentioned, in particular Henry’s infamous antisemitism.Since Henry Ford’s great grandson Billy Ford recently named Mark Fields, who is Jewish, to be FoMoCo’s Chief Operating Officer, great-grandpa’s Jew-hatred has been mentioned in much of the media coverage of Fields’ promotion. In a way that’s unfortunate because when Billy’s uncle Henry Ford II ran the car company he made it his personal mission to reach out to the Jewish community with a hand of sincere friendship. I don’t think it’s inaccurate to say that Fields could be COO of Ford today because the Deuce ran the company two generations ago. The story I heard last night is evidence of that.

Henry Ford II, his last official Ford portrait

My source is Prof. Harold Josephs, Ph.D, a (full) professor of engineering at Lawrence Tech in Southfield, just outside Detroit. Dr. Josephs is a cycling buddy of mine and I consider him to be a man of considerable integrity and credibility. Before he started teaching at LTU, he had a long career as an engineer at Ford. According to Lawrence’s website, his areas of expertise are “dynamics, kinematics, bolting and joining, mechanics of materials, quality, reliability, safety and ergonomics. He is a member of the SAE, ASME, the American Society of Quality, the American Society of Safety Engineers, the National Society of Professional Engineers, the System Safety Society, the National Academy of Forensic Engineers (fellow status), the Human Factors Society, and the Michigan Society of Professional Engineers (fellow status).” Not exactly the kind of guy who makes up stories.

Max Fisher presents Henry Ford II with an award from the United Jewish Appeal

My mom took me out for dinner for my birthday (I’ve been waiting my entire life for 12-12-12) and Dr. Josephs and his wife came in to the restaurant soon after we sat down. I mentioned Fields and asked Josephs, who is an Orthodox Jew, if he’d ever experienced any antisemitism while at Ford. He said sure, but that it was always from individuals, not an institutional or corporate culture thing at Ford. He’d hired into Ford in the early 1970s so he was there when Ford II was in charge of he company. When I mentioned that the second Henry Ford did a lot to try and change attitudes at Ford about Jews and vice versa, Professor Josephs told me that in 1973, during the height of the Yom Kippur war, Henry Ford II came down to the engineering labs to meet with a colleague of his who was active in the Detroit Technion Society.

Henry Ford’s grandchildren. Left to right: Henry II, Josephine, William Clay, Benson

The Technion, founded in 1912, is Israel’s equivalent to Cal Tech or MIT, a world class engineering school. Over the years, Detroit’s Jewish community, particularly engineers and other technical folks, have supported the school both financially and academically (PDF). Alex Taub, who had a major role in the design of Chevy’s “Stovebolt Six” engine and later, during WWII, worked on the engine for Britain’s Churchill tank, made by GM’s Bedford subsidiary, gave a series of lectures on automotive engineering at the school in the early 1950s. Since Israel was one of the few places in the Middle East that didn’t have oil deposits (a situation that has apparently changed, according to recent discoveries) Taub recommended that the young country use ethanol as a fuel.

When his father Edsel, who by then was running FoMoCo, died in 1943 and Henry Ford reasserted control of the company, the United States government discharged Henry Ford II from the Navy. Ford Motor Company was a critical military supplier and the government could not afford for it to be run by an always crazy and now senile man. The junior Ford brought in the so-called “whiz kids” who turned what had been Henry’s feudal fiefdom into a modern corporation, along the way helping to introduce modern postwar cars in the ’49 Ford.

While Henry Ford II was making his visit to the Ford engineering lab in October of 1973, graduates of the Technion furthering their studies abroad were busy flying home to Israel as their reserve units were called up. In the early days of the war, Israel was losing. I know that sounds unlikely since Israel’s military strength since the Six Day War has been significant, to say the least, but in the first days of the ’73 war, the simple fact is that Israel was losing a war it could not afford to lose. Though Israel survived, it came at a great cost. In three weeks of fighting there were ~3,000 Israeli war dead in a country of with a population then of only 3.3 million people. The surprise attack on Yom Kippur on two fronts by Syria and Egypt left many of Israel’s front line aircraft shot down or damaged. Egyptian forces had crossed the Suez canal and broken through Israeli lines in the Sinai peninsula. On the Golan Heights the situation was perhaps more precarious for the Israelis because there was no huge buffer of the Sinai desert between Syrian forces and Israel proper. Desperate tank battles raged on both fronts. In the Sinai some of the largest tank to tank battles in military history took place. On the Golan, fragmented Israeli tank crews fought against remarkable odds while the country mobilized its reserves, the bulk of the Israeli armed forces. If you think you’re a badass, do a search on Zvika Greengold or Avigdor Kahalani. Would you take just two tanks into battle against 200? One of those returning engineering students had been going to school in Ann Arbor where I’d been attending Michigan as well. He was a tank commander and flew home even before his unit was called up. In battle he had his tank blown out from under him. Relatively unscathed, he was still not cleared to return to active duty by the IDF doctors. When I saw him again in Ann Arbor the fighting was still going on, there wasn’t yet a ceasefire. His commanding officer told him to go back to school, that the tide was turning and that they’d still need engineers after the war.

Due to people like my friend, and even more so guys like Greengold and Kahalani (and a ballsy move by Ariel Sharon to counterattack across the canal, cutting off Egyptian forces on the Sinai and in Egypt proper, forcing a ceasefire) the tide indeed started turning in the war. After some equivocating (and perhaps the loading of Israeli nuclear weapons on planes just as US spyplanes made their scheduled overflights), Richard Nixon approved the emergency shipment of a billion dollars worth of weapons, mostly jets and tanks to replenish depleted Israeli materiel. Fighter jets rolled off American assembly lines, were fueled up and flown non-stop to Israel, refueling in midair because no European countries would allow them to land, landed at IAF bases, painted with numbers, squadron livery and Israeli flags, and put directly into combat. In the summer of 1974 I worked in a scrap yard adjacent to the Detroit Industrial Railroad lines, a few miles south of the Tank Arsenal in Warren, where they built M-60 tanks. Enough tanks were shipped via C5A Galaxy superfreighters to Israel in October 1973 that the following year, all summer long on my lunch break I watched trains running fully loaded with tanks for the US to get its own reserves back up to normal levels.

Henry Ford II, Max Fisher and unidentified IDF officer, Sinai peninsula, 1972

Some say that Ford II wanted to change his company’s image with the Jewish community. Until the 1970s, many Jews would not buy Ford products. Others say it was a personal thing – Ford’s friend was philanthropist Max Fisher. They met when Mrs. Fisher and one of the Mrs. Fords worked together to bring the Metropolitan Opera to Detroit for a performance. The two men had completely different backgrounds. Ford was the grandson of one of the world’s most powerful industrialists, born to wealth, privilege and power. Fisher was mostly a self made man, having grown his immigrant father’s oil reclamation business into what eventually became Marathon Oil. Despite their seeming difference, they were best friends from the early 1950s until Ford’s death in 1987.

Chaim Weizmann, first president of Israel (in hat and beard), with his Lincoln Cosmopolitan Presidential Limousine, just like Harry Truman’s, a gift from Henry Ford II

Regardless of the reasons, Henry Ford II was an early and visible supporter of Israel (PDF). After Zionist activist and chemist Chaim Weizmann was named to the ceremonial position of Israeli president and met Ford while touring the US, Ford sent him a Henney bodied Lincoln Presidential Cosmopolitan Limousine to use as a state car. Ford Motor Co. had 18 Lincoln Presidential Limousines made during President Truman’s administration. Nine were leased to the White House, and another eight were prelocated around the US in cities likely to be visited by President Truman. Henry Ford II’s regard for Dr. Weizmann and Israel can be seen from the fact that the Weizmann Lincoln was the only one reserved for the use of a person other than the president of the United States. Weizmann used the car until his death in 1952. That car actually still exists and was restored about a decade ago by the respected restoration unit of RM Auctions. The restoration was a partnership of the Weizmann Institute of Science, Ford Motor Company, and Delek Motors (Israel’s importer and distributor of Ford and Lincoln vehicles). It is now on display at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, Israel.

In 1950 Henry Ford II again met with Weizmann and approved FoMoCo sales of trucks to the Israeli government on generous credit terms. In 1951, Ford hosted David Ben Gurion for a luncheon at Ford HQ when Israel’s first prime minister visited Detroit. Ford and Fisher were vacationing with their wives together on a yacht somewhere in the Mediterranean when the Six Day War broke out in 1967. Fisher interrupted their cruise to fly to Israel in his capacity as an official of the United Jewish Appeal. When he got home to Detroit there was a hand-written note from his friend Hank, “I’m sending this check because I believe in the cause.” Ford’s check to the UJA, not his first and certainly not his last, was in the amount of $100,000, not a small amount of money in 1967. Other Jewish affiliated charities like the ORT educational organization received corporate donations from Ford Motor Co. while Henry Ford II was chairman (ORT sponsors another highly regarded Israeli engineering school, at the Hebrew University). In the 1970s, Mr. Ford was instrumental in setting up Israeli assembly of knocked down kits of Ford trucks at a plant in Nazareth. He publicly thumbed his nose at the secondary boycott by Arab countries of companies that did business with Israel. According to Ford biographer Boonton Herndon, Ford told Fisher, “Nobody’s gonna tell me what to do.”

When Henry Ford II decided to drop into Ford Engineering at the height of the Yom Kippur war, that war was still a close run thing, with Israel’s fate still in the balance. One of Joseph’s senior colleagues at Ford was Jack Stone, who’d worked on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos as a young electrical engineer. Stone had been an active supporter of the Technion since before Israel’s independence in 1948. When he visited the engineering department in October of 1973, Hank the Deuce asked Stone to use his contacts to find out what Israel needed that Ford Motor Company could supply. Stone made inquiries and the word came back “tank carriers”. The Deuce asked what a tank carrier was. Apparently, by then Israel had enough tanks, but not enough heavy equipment lowboys to haul the mechanized armor to the battle fronts. Ford got on the phone to Ford of Europe and arranged for appropriate trailers to be immediately transported to Israel.

When Professor Josephs told me the story, I asked for and received his permission to quote him by name as a source for this post. This is the first time that this story has been published, or, as far as I know, told in public. Concerning the man who had the GT40 built just to show Enzo Ferrari that if he couldn’t be bought out, he’d get beaten, the man who said, “ Never Complain, never Explain

Now I’m not saying that for those acts Henry Ford II deserves that Yad Vashem memorialize him as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. I’m sure he had a while to go before he could be considered as selfless as Raul Wallenberg or Sempo Sugihara. Grosse Pointe in 1973 was not wartime Hungary or Lithuania. At the same time, though, as a human being the man was a notable improvement on his eponymous progenitor and that deserves to be acknowledged and publicized. Because of Henry Ford II’s actions, I think it’s fair to say that while antisemitism was indisputably part of Ford Motor Company’s history, it hasn’t been a part of the company’s present since Hank the Deuce was in charge.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can check out the parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

Ronnie Schreiber
Ronnie Schreiber

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, the original 3D car site.

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  • Shaker Shaker on Dec 15, 2012

    Hitler's legacy of: Hate = Ignorance + Fear lives on to this day. It is slow to dissipate, even through the swirling currents of history... I'm glad to see that the effort to reduce ignorance is still alive (as evidenced by Ronnie's great article). It's important to remember that ignorance applies to all sides of an issue - it has no "polarity" - we should fight for the rights of all whenever possible - treat no one human family as superior to another.

  • TheDoctorIsOut TheDoctorIsOut on Feb 14, 2013

    Never had been a regular reader of this site though I liked it. Found this story by accident only today, will stop by daily now. I had thought on occasion there must have been a reason Jews chose Cadillacs instead of Lincolns after WWII, thought it was connected it to Henry I. Maybe Lincoln would have been more successful over the years if it wasn't.

  • SCE to AUX Another outsourced battery goes awry.
  • Jkross22 Nah, If I needed a truck, I'd get a Nissan titan or for nearly the same money a 20 yr old SR5.
  • Kwik_Shift No. It is hideous and jarring to look at. Why would I need this anyway?
  • Jeff From the side profile this gives off Taurus wagon vibes. Nice looking wagon love the exterior color and the interior. The burled walnut interior trim is beautiful.
  • Jeff I think initially there will be a lot of orders for this truck and then sales will crater. Those that want this truck mainly the Tesla fans will buy them and then anyone that wanted one will have already bought one. The Cybertruck kind of reminds me of the Delorean which was widely anticipated and once it was out and those who wanted a Delorean bought one that was the end. Both the Delorean and Cybertruck are stainless steel and both are weird looking. Maybe they could release a new Back to the Future sequence and have Doc drive a Cybertruck.