Was Thomas Edison anti-Semitic?


by Lewis Brett Smiler

Was Thomas Edison anti-Semitic?  There is no simple answer to this question.   The inventor believed in many common Jewish stereotypes, and some of his remarks about Jews can be construed as prejudice.  However, Edison also expressed support in their quest for freedom and employed them in trusted positions at his laboratory.   He once referred to Jews as a “remarkable people,” and the evidence suggests that Edison’s feelings about them were complex.[1]

Henry Ford, Edison’s close friend, built an “entire worldview” around anti-Semitism, and his publications helped popularize the idea of a “Jewish World Conspiracy.”[2]  Ford stated in 1923, “Jews are the scavengers of the world.  Wherever there’s anything wrong with a country, you’ll find the Jews on the job there.”[3]  Some might argue that Edison’s association with Ford suggests that he was just as prejudiced.  However, the inventor’s views should be assessed based on his own words and actions and not on those of Ford’s.

In 1921 Ford associate Ernest Liebold sent Edison a leather-bound copy of The International Jew, a set of essays promoting Ford’s anti-Semitic views.[4]  Edison’s personal secretary William Meadowcroft replied that Edison “. . . wishes to express his thanks for your kindness in sending him a copy,” but the inventor’s feelings regarding the book’s contents are not known.[5]  Ford Motor Company executive Harry Bennett wrote, “I only saw Ford ashamed of his bigotry before one man, and that was Thomas Edison . . .  More than once I heard Edison rebuke Mr. Ford for his prejudice.”[6]  Bennett’s statement was complimentary towards Edison, but this does not mean the inventor was entirely free of anti-Semitism.   Many of the inventor’s remarks suggested that he was influenced by popular Jewish stereotypes.

During the early 20th century the Bolshevik revolution was commonly seen as a Jewish conspiracy against the Russian people.[7]  Author André Gerrits wrote, “Even among those who were essentially sympathetic to the Jewish cause, Bolshevik rule was widely regarded as a means of retaliation by Russian Jews.”  It was believed that the Jews were punishing the Russian people for the imperial government’s anti-Semitic policies.[8]  Did Edison buy into the theory of a Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy?  In a 1919 letter to Secretary of Labor William B. Wilson, he briefly mentioned “two crazy Jews at Petrograd [who] can delude the proletariat” in some part of Europe.  (This reference did not appear in the final draft of the letter.) [9]  In 1924 he mailed a newspaper clipping to Liebold suggesting that most of the Soviet government leaders were Jewish and only five were of “pure Russian blood.”  Edison’s only comment on the clipping was that it was “interesting.”[10]

The evidence suggests that the inventor acknowledged a Jewish-Bolshevik connection, but the full extent of his views is not clear.  There is very little documentation regarding Edison’s thoughts on the topic.   However, his association of Jews with communism was hardly unique for that time period.   Even the U.S. State Department kept track of Jewish officials in the Soviet regime.[11]

Edison said more about his views on Jewish capitalism, another subject where he subscribed to many of the common stereotypes.  Abraham Foxman, former National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, wrote that it was a popular myth that “powerful Jews practically dominate and control the world of business.”[12]  Edison seemed to believe this was true in Germany during World War I.  In a 1914 interview with the Detroit Free Press, the inventor stated that the Jews “. . .  have control over the business of Germany, and the military gang which governs the country does their bidding.”[13]  Was Edison suggesting that Jews also controlled the German military?

In a letter to Jewish journalist Herman Bernstein, the inventor explained his views in more detail.  “. . . the fact is that the military group that rules Germany had brains enough to take the advice of the great Jewish bankers and business men, and gave the captains of industry a free hand, thus enabling them to build up the power of modern Germany.”[14]  Edison credited Jews for the “. . . quick commercial rise of Germany,” but whether or not he blamed them for World War I is open for interpretation.[15]  However, Edison’s comments demonstrate how much he was influenced by the stereotypes of Jews in business.

According to Foxman, it was a common myth that Jews were wealthy “thanks to their innate abilities.”[16]  Edison wrote in a 1911 letter that the Jew “…has acquired a sixth sense, which gives him an almost unerring judgment in trade affairs.”[17]  Another myth covered by Foxman was that Jews will try to accumulate wealth “by any means necessary.”[18]  Edison wrote in 1911, “I wish they [Jews] would all quit making money.” This particular sentence was crossed out and did not appear in the final draft of the letter but still offered insights into the inventor’s thinking.[19]  Foxman also discussed the myth that “Jewish tradition holds that it is acceptable to exploit and even cheat non-Jews.”[20]  Edison mentioned in a 1917 letter that he was “compelled to pay the Jews 4 times the price for diamonds…” that he needed.[21]

There is no question that the inventor made some anti-Semitic comments, but he also expressed opposition to Jewish persecution and considered that to be the cause of their business practices.  He wrote in 1911, “The trouble with him [the Jew] is that he has been persecuted for centuries by ignorant, malignant bigots and forced into his present characteristics . . .” Edison believed that in America where the Jew has freedom, “…in time he will cease to be so clannish” and not take advantage of others in the business world.[22]

Even as Edison’s comments continued to stereotype Jews, it is important to note that he seemed to support Jewish emancipation.  In a July 1916 letter, the inventor wrote that the Jew will receive justice “. . . when religious superstition dies out and all nations become republics.”[23]   Bernard Richards, secretary of the American Jewish Congress, sent Edison a letter two months later asking for support.[24]  Edison responded, “. . . I am in favor of having a Jewish Congress, as well as any other device that Jews can think of, in order to obtain their rights.  I believe the day is not far distant when men will not be persecuted for wanting to go to Heaven in their own way and not in some other people’s way.”[25]

Were Edison’s comments sincere?  Did he really believe in freedom for Jewish people?  It seemed that Edison’s anti-Semitic views mostly applied to their role in business.  He wrote in 1911, “While there are some ‘terrible examples’ in mercantile pursuits, the moment he gets into Art, Music, Science, and Literature, the Jew is fine…”[26]  This comment sharply contrasted with Ford’s The International Jew, which suggested Jews were utilizing literature, art, and other influences to poison American society.[27]  Edison never expressed prejudiced views on that level and, even though he seemed to resent Jews in the world of commerce, there were some whom he respected.  The inventor visited the office of Felix Fuld, a prominent Jewish merchant in Newark, and seemed very welcoming when Fuld wanted to return the visit.  Edison wrote Fuld in 1917, “I shall be glad to see you and your friends . . . and have the pleasure of shaking hands with you all.  I shall also be glad to have you and them look through the Laboratory.”[28]

In 1918 Edison expressed admiration for Jewish banker Otto Kahn after reading his speeches and pamphlets.  The inventor wrote the following note to his secretary Meadowcroft, “Will you please ask personally of Kahn for his photograph autographed.  Say Mr. Edison think [sic] you are one of the very few men known to him who can think straight.”[29]  Kahn’s picture would be hung in the library at Edison’s laboratory, demonstrating that the inventor’s admiration for him was sincere.[30]

There are no signs that Edison discriminated against Jews in his hiring practices.   Frank Shapiro was a senior at Tufts College with an obvious Jewish name.  In April 1917 he wrote to Edison asking about a job opening in June.  Shapiro indicated that he was “deeply interested in the branch of Organic Chemistry that deals with the intermediate tar products and Dyestuffs themselves.”[31]   Edison replied four days later with a job offer.  He wrote, “. . . I shall have some experimental work in the line you mention, which could wait until June to be taken up . . . If you want to try it, please let me know, and also say about what day in June you would be ready to commence work.”[32]  The Tufts archives indicate that Shapiro did work for Edison as a research chemist and later held posts in various Jewish organizations.[33]

Shapiro was not the only Jew to be employed in Edison’s laboratory.  Benjamin Liebowitz, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, was hired by Edison during World War I to assist with military research.[34]  Isidor Chesler, a Russian Jewish immigrant, worked on Edison’s storage battery and later helped with naval experiments.[35]  Meyer Strell, another Russian Jewish immigrant, worked directly with Edison for four years and assisted with the development of various inventions.  Strell said in 1962, “It was difficult for any Jew to get a job, so restricted were the laboratories.  But Edison didn’t care who you were, as long as you were a good worker.”[36]  Was Strell correct in his assessment of Edison?  We can only speculate how many Jews worked in Edison’s laboratory through the years, but the evidence suggests that he was open-minded about hiring Jewish employees and trusted them with important work.

We cannot ignore the fact that Edison stereotyped Jews and made prejudiced comments, but they do not tell the whole story of his feelings or relationships with Jewish people.  Many of his words and actions seemed to convey acceptance, support, and even admiration.  The evidence demonstrates that Edison had mixed feelings towards Jews, and not everything he expressed suggested anti-Semitism.

[1]Thomas Alva Edison to Isaac Markens, November 15 ,1911, Thomas Edison National Historical Park, West Orange, NJ, Thomas A. Edison Papers: A Selective Microfilm Edition, Part V (1911-1919) (Bethesda, MD: LexisNexis, 2007), 249:509.

[2]Abraham H. Foxman, Jews and Money: The Story of a Stereotype (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 69; André Gerrits, The Myth of Jewish Communism: A Historical Interpretation (Brussels: P.I.E. Peter Lang, 2009), 17.

[3]Steven Watts, The People’s Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 381.

[4]Ernest Gustav Liebold and Dearborn Publishing Co to Edison, January 28, 1921, Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village Research Center, Thomas A. Edison Papers Digital Edition Doc X001B8AA; Watts, The People’s Tycoon, 379.

[5]William Henry Meadowcroft to Liebold and Dearborn Publishing Co, February 3, 1921, Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village Research Center, Dearborn, MI, TAED Doc X001B8AB

[6]Harry Bennett, We Never Called Him Henry (New York: Fawcett Publications, 1951), 47.

[7]Gerrits, The Myth of Jewish Communism, 9.

[8]Gerrits, The Myth of Jewish Communism, 18.

[9]Edison to William Bauchop Wilson and U.S. Dept of Labor, May 13, 1919, Thomas Edison National Historical Park, West Orange, NJ, TAEM V 271:325.

[10]Edison To Liebold, November 28, 1924, Accession 64, Box 1, Liebold Papers, TAE Folder, Corres. & Agreements 1912-1929, Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village Research Center, Dearborn, MI.

[11]Gerrits, The Myth of Jewish Communism, 18.

[12]Foxman, Jews and Money, 92.

[13]“Militarism Is Cause of War, Thinks Edison,” Detroit Free Press, October 26, 1914, TAEM V 259:1005.

[14]Edison to Herman Bernstein and Day (Newspaper), November 13, 1914, Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village Research Center, Dearborn, MI, TAED Doc X001A3.

[15]“Militarism Is Cause of War, Thinks Edison,” TAEM V 259:1005.

[16]Foxman, Jews and Money, 84.

[17]Edison to Markens, November 15, 1911, Thomas Edison National Historical Park, West Orange, NJ, TAEM V 249:509.

[18]Foxman, Jews and Money, 98.

[19]Edison to Markens, November 15, 1911, Thomas Edison National Historical Park, West Orange, NJ, TAEM V 274:285; Edison to Markens, November 15, 1911, Thomas Edison National Historical Park, West Orange, NJ, TAEM V 249:509.

[20]Foxman, Jews and Money, 102.

[21]Edison to John Ferreol Monnot, January 23 1917, Thomas Edison National Historical Park, West Orange, NJ, TAEM V 268:161.

[22]Edison to Markens, November 15, 1911, Thomas Edison National Historical Park, West Orange, NJ, TAEM V 249:509.

[23]Edison to Charles Schwager, July 7, 1916, Thomas Edison National Historical Park, West Orange, NJ, TAEM V 277:308.

[24]Bernard G. Richards to Edison, September 27, 1916, Thomas Edison National Historical Park, West Orange, NJ, TAEM V 267:835.

[25]Edison to Richards, September 30, 1916, Thomas Edison National Historical Park, West Orange, NJ, TAEM V 277:445.

[26]Edison to Markens, November 15, 1911, Thomas Edison National Historical Park, West Orange, NJ, TAEM V 249:509.

[27]Aspects of Jewish Power in the United States, vol. 4 of The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem (Dearborn, MI: The Dearborn Publishing Co., 1922), 225

[28]Felix Fuld to Edison, January 27, 1917, Thomas Edison National Historical Park, West Orange, NJ, TAEM V 269:510; Edison to Fuld, January 30, 1917, Thomas Edison National Historical Park, West Orange, NJ, TAEM V 277:739.

[29]Edison and Meadowcroft to Otto Herman Kahn, November 15, 1918, Thomas Edison National Historical Park, West Orange, NJ,  TAEM V 270:615.

[30]Theresa M. Collins, Otto Kahn: Art, Money & Modern Time (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 330

[31]Frank Simon Shapiro to Edison, April 22, 1916, Thomas Edison National Historical Park, West Orange, NJ, TAEM V 266:692.

[32]Edison to Shapiro, April 26, 1916, Thomas Edison National Historical Park, West Orange, NJ, TAEM V 277:113.

[33]Biographical Information: Frank S. Shapiro, Microfiche Development Research Files, UA043 University Advancement Division Records, Tufts University Digital Collections and Archives, Medford, MA.

[34]Thomas E. Jeffrey, From Phonographs to U-boats: Edison and His “Insomnia Squad” In Peace And War, 1911-1919 (Bethesda, MD: LexisNexis, 2008), 49.

[35]Jeffrey, From Phonographs to U-boats, 42.

[36]Barbara Krampf, “Newark Inventor Recalls Early Days with Edison,” The Jewish News, February 9, 1962, TAED 508A.

One thought on “Was Thomas Edison anti-Semitic?

  1. Lewis This is excellent, thank you for sending it to me. A few years back I was in Edison’s son’s home in LLewelyn Park and in the basement there were some of Edison’s inventions and numerous photos. There were several photos of Edison with Henry Ford, Franklin Roosevelt (before he became President) and some other men. I don’t remember who they were. I remembered Ford because I had read that he was anti-semitic.Please send me any of your written pieces.


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