The Anti-Semites Who Pushed Prohibition on America
America’s experiment with temperance was partially thanks to a nefarious plan by anti-Semites and isolationists to drive immigrants from the country.
“The Jews are on the side of liquor and always have [been],” opined American industrialist Henry Ford in 1922. He did not mean it as a compliment.
As one of the most prominent anti-Semites of his day, Ford found the connection particularly convenient, since he was also an avid teetotaler. And in the era leading up to Prohibition, many supporters of the temperance movement were selling the proposed amendment as a way to drive immigrants out of the United States by taking away their means of employment.
“Jewish immigrants had participated in the American alcohol industry since the ‘second wave’ of immigration, which started in the 1840s,” notes Marni Davis, associate professor of history at Georgia State University, and author of Jews and Booze. “Ashkenazi Jews of both German and Eastern European descent had been involved in the alcohol industry back in Europe. Sometimes in production, sometimes in distribution, sometimes in packaging—or flavorings.”
It wasn’t that they were innately on the “side” of liquor, of course. The expertise they carried across the Atlantic with them was because the laws of Kashruth required them to oversee the production of both their food and drinks. Old-world anti-Semitism also meant that Jews had often been barred from land ownership—and agricultural production—for centuries. They made the most of what was left, which often consisted narrowly of crafting and distributing alcoholic beverages. They were also sometimes forced into the liquor business, like in 1700s Poland.
But when they landed in the U.S., they were met with a receptive market.
“American culture was eager to help potential alcohol entrepreneurs establish themselves and grow their industries by buying their product,” says Davis. “The combination of Jewish experience and industry knowledge—pre-immigration—and the fact that they arrived in a place that was buying alcohol in vast quantities made for a very welcoming environment for Jewish alcohol entrepreneurs.”
A number of these new Americans made their way to western Kentucky, which at the time would have felt much like frontier country. “The early Jewish community that settled here in the mid-19th century were mostly German Jews seeking emancipation and religious freedom,” according to Abby Glogower, archivist of Jewish materials at the Filson Historical Society in Louisville. “They brought with them their own skillset: business and trade. That’s largely because Jews had been denied entry to many artisan and craft guilds.”
It didn’t take long for them to thrive in the U.S. Some of the biggest names in the pre-Prohibition bourbon industry belonged to German Jews: Dreyfuss & Weil, Samuel Grabfelder (whose operation anchored the prestigious Whiskey Row of office buildings in downtown Louisville), and I.W. Bernheim, who is today immortalized with an eponymous whiskey brand that was created to honor him. By 1900, Jews accounted for 25 percent of whiskey distillers, rectifiers, and wholesalers in Louisville, as noted by Davis in Jews and Booze. By comparison, the Jewish population in the greater Louisville area consisted of less than 3 percent overall.
Indeed, there was an outsized involvement of Jewish-Americans not just in whiskey business, but in the brewing world as well. The Brooklyn-based Rheingold Brewery was founded in 1883 by the Liebmann family, who were German Jewish immigrants. By the start of the 20th century, it staked claim to 35 percent of New York State’s total beer market in the pre-Prohibition era—enough to mark it as one of the top-selling brands in the country.
But around the same time a coordinated anti-alcohol movement was also gaining steam. At its roots were Protestant and Puritan ideals, which traditionally eyed Judaism through a suspicious lens. The temperance movement was initially born as the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union when it was conceived in 1873 in Ohio. Along with its male counterpart, the Anti-Saloon League, its “reform” strategies targeted Jewish as well as Catholic immigrants, labeling them as “anti-American” elements that threatened gentile society with their foreign drinking habits and “saloon culture.”
Banding together to shield themselves from such dispersions only served to deepen the distrust. “That tight kinship, cultural aspect of Judaism is a target that other people like to use,” observes Anistatia Miller, co-author of Spirituous Journey: A History of Drink. “It’s always been fuel for conspiracy—and certainly played such a role during Prohibition.”
Cue Henry Ford, who throughout the 1920s positioned Jews as riotous bootleggers and criminal masterminds in a series of published essays. “The International Jew: The World’s Problem,” ran the headline of his widely-read newsweekly, The Dearborn Independent. At its height in 1925, the paper reached an audience of 925,000—second in the U.S. only to the New York Daily News.
Ford and other prominent nativists of the day were alarmed by the country’s rapidly shifting demographics: along with the Eastern European Jews, upwards of a million-and-a-half Irish immigrants had recently fled to the U.S. escaping famine. Nearly as many Italians arrived contemporaneously, seeking relief from the slums of Southern Italy.
In her book, Miller touches on how the Ku Klux Klan rose to power during this time, offering itself as an evangelically-minded enforcement organization to root out criminality. The illegal behavior it focused on, naturally, was wholly confined to Jewish and Catholic immigrant populations. They were less concerned with the Protestant elected officials who openly flouted the Volstead Act across all levels of government. In fact, without the passage of the 18th Amendment, the U.S. likely would have never seen the violent ascension of this notorious hate group that marred the ensuing decade.
“I would not say every Anti-Saloon Leaguer is a Ku Kluxer, but every Ku Kluxer is an Anti-Saloon Leaguer,” said American Civil Liberties Union founder Clarence Darrow in 1924.
Observant Jews, meanwhile, would never cede their right to alcohol as it is inherent to time-honored religious rituals.
“Almost every lifecycle event in Judaism is inaugurated with the Kiddush [blessing] over wine,” explains Rabbi Akiva Niehaus of the Chicago Rabbinical Council. But the Bible “does not encourage drinking at all. It’s about the religious symbolism. It’s a product that can bring people to a higher level and a deeper understanding of oneself.”
After the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, many prominent Jewish families returned to the industry. Though this time around they were less eager to display their names on the necks of their bottles.
“The Shapira family had been in dry goods and owned several department stores around Louisville,” explains Glogower of one of the most influential examples. “They were approached as investment partners and ended up forming the business that is today known as Heaven Hill.”
Sazerac—the largest American-owned spirits company—is helmed by third-generation businessman William Goldring. His grandfather Newman, launched the company in 1898. His primary holding, Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky, just released a line of kosher bourbons in conjunction with the Chicago Rabbinical Council. The partnership is hardly a coincidence. “It’s because of the Jewish ownership that [they] viewed this project with tremendous pride,” says Rabbi Niehaus. “They want to reach out to the kosher consumer with an authentic kosher product without cutting corners. It’s the Jewish pride that made them want to do it right.”
Antisemitism in the industry stubbornly persists, of course, as it does in all aspects of society. But Jews continue to make inroads by pushing back against the forces of marginalization.
“Throughout history, we have often found ourselves on the lower end of the social totem pole,” says Ron Silberstein, founder of Admiral Maltings in Alameda, California. “And these sorts of professions were kind of foisted upon us. But we were just making the most out of what was allowed.”
There is a vicious circuitousness to the logic. Antisemitism has long corralled Jews toward the business of booze. Then they’re met with more scorn after garnering success from that pursuit.
By now, at least, Ford’s derisive pronouncement has been sapped of any intended stigma. Ten years after scapegoating Jewish Americans for trying to sabotage the temperance movement, he declared a comically ill-timed victory. “Prohibition is a success and nation will never abandon it,” read his 1932 headline in Collier’s Weekly. A little more than a year later, the passage of the 21st Amendment suggested otherwise.
If Jews were ever picking sides, it was ultimately the right side—of history. Ford could never be accused of the same.