Margaret Thatcher, RIP

Margaret Thatcher, RIP

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher passed away yesterday at the age of 87.  She was an extraordinary woman, a powerful politician who aroused very strong feelings of warmth or hatred, depending on your political point of view, but rarely was neutrality an option. Although Mrs. Thatcher (Baroness Thatcher in her retirement) was a great philo-Semite, her attitude towards Israel was mixed. Nevertheless, she will be mourned in Israel as a staunch friend.

I am sure you will be able to read obituaries galore in all the international press, so here is a selection from the Israeli media:

From Ynet:

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said “I mourn the passing of the Baroness Margaret Thatcher. She was a great leader, a steadfast friend of Israel and the Jewish people.”“She provided inspiration for a generation of political leaders. I send my condolences to her family, the government and the British people,” he added.

President Shimon Peres also addressed Thatcher’s death. “There are people and there are ideals, sometimes they come together. She was a loyal friend of Israel. Her death is a loss to the political world,” he said.

Peres said Thatcher had played a key role in the peace process with the Jordanians: “She acted to bring us closer and did it intelligently, faithfully and reliably. Both and I the king of Jordan knew she could be trusted.”

[…]

A Soviet journalist called her the “Iron Lady”, a nickname which became associated with her uncompromising politics and leadership style.

[…]

Originally a research chemist before becoming a barrister, Thatcher was elected Member of Parliament (MP) for Finchley in 1959. In 1975 Thatcher defeated Heath in the Conservative Party leadership election and became Leader of the Opposition, as well as the first woman to lead a major political party in the United Kingdom.

The Times of Israel describes her sometimes rocky relationship with Israel:

Thatcher was supportive of Israel but had a troubled relationship with Begin, who served two terms in the 1980s. She called Begin the “most difficult” man she had to deal with, according to the Chronicle. She also strongly opposed Israel’s bombing of Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor.

She believed that the Arab-Israel conflict was at the center of the Western world’s difficulties in the Middle East, pressing Israeli leaders to make peace with the Palestinians in order to cool regional tensions.

Despite this ambivalence, Mrs. Thatcher was a very staunch philo-Semite, a very great friend of the Jews, and her cabinet was populated by a large number of Jewish politicians:

Thatcher was a founding member of the Anglo-Israel Friendship League of Finchley and a member of the Conservative Friends of Israel, according to Tablet.

Wineman said Thatcher counted a number of Jews among her closest advisers and confidants, and at one point nearly a quarter of her Cabinet was of Jewish origins. They included Nigel Lawson, Malcolm Rifkind, Keith Joseph and Leon Brittan, according to the Jewish Chronicle.

“She also greatly admired the late Chief Rabbi Dr. Immanuel Jakobovits, whom she elevated to the House of Lords,” Wineman said. “She was unquestionably a great statesman of the later 20th century, and one who was a friend to the Jewish people and Israel.”

Thatcher reportedly had no patience for anti-Semitism nor those who espoused it. She was a strong supporter of Soviet Jewry.

She had a strong relationship with US President Ronald Reagan and together they fought communism, leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

The Algemeiner too tells us that Margaret Thatcher was “untouched by anti-Semitism”. An article from Tablet Magazine from over a year ago illustrates this well:

Thatcher, by contrast, had no patience for anti-Semitism or for those who countenanced it. “I simply did not understand anti-semitism myself,” Thatcher confessed in her memoirs. Indeed, she found “some of [her] closest political friends and associates among Jews.” Unique among British politicians, she was unusually free of even “the faintest trace of anti-Semitism in her make-up,” wrote Nigel Lawson, her chancellor of the Exchequer, in 1992. Lawson knew of what he spoke. Alan Clark, a senior Tory politician, wrote in his diaries that some of the old guard, himself included, thought Lawson could not, “as a Jew,” be offered the position of foreign secretary. Lawson’s “Jewish parentage was disqualification enough,” the Sunday Telegraph wrote in 1988, without a hint of shame. Rumors and speculation persisted well into the 1990s about why this or that Jewish member of Parliament couldn’t be made leader of the Conservative Party.

Early on in her career—even before she entered politics—Thatcher had worked alongside Jews as a chemist at J. Lyons and Co., a Jewish-owned company. (She had graduated from Oxford in 1947 with a degree in chemistry.) After quitting chemistry, she became a barrister and grew increasingly involved in politics. She ran for office in some of the more conservative districts and lost each time. Thatcher finally won when she ran in Finchley, a safe Tory seat in a north London borough. Finally she had found her constituents: middle-class, entrepreneurial, Jewish suburbanites. She particularly loved the way her new constituents took care of one another, rather than looking to the state: “In the thirty-three years that I represented [Finchley],” she later wrote, “I never had a Jew come in poverty and desperation to one of my [town meetings],” and she often wished that Christians “would take closer note of the Jewish emphasis on self-help and acceptance of personal responsibility.” She was a founding member of the Anglo-Israel Friendship League of Finchley and a member of the Conservative Friends of Israel. Aghast that a golf club in her district consistently barred Jews from becoming members, she publicly protested against it. She even joined in the singing of the Israeli national anthem in 1975 at Finchley.

The Jews of Finchley were “her people,” Thatcher used to say—certainly much more so than the wealthy land barons that dominated her party.

Here I would add a personal aspect: Mrs. Thatcher came to our house! She came in her capacity as MP for Finchley, the constituency next door to our own very Jewish constituency, to address my mother’s Emunah women’s group. However since I was so young (and I thought the whole thing boring anyway) I was banished to the kitchen or my bedroom for the evening. What a missed opportunity for me! But who was to know that she would become Prime Minister one day?

The Times of Israel article above touches upon a story about how Mrs. Thatcher was instrumental in saving a Jewish refugee girl from the Holocaust, and the story itself is recounted in Tablet Magazine:

In 1938, Edith Muhlbauer, a 17-year-old Jewish girl, wrote to Muriel Roberts, Edith’s pen pal and the future prime minister’s [Margaret Thatcher] older sister, asking if the Roberts family might help her escape Hitler’s Austria. The Nazis had begun rounding up the first of Vienna’s Jews after the Anschluss, and Edith and her family worried she might be next. Alfred Roberts, Margaret and Muriel’s father, was a small-town grocer; the family had neither the time nor the money to take Edith in. So Margaret, then 12, and Muriel, 17, set about raising funds and persuading the local Rotary club to help.

Edith stayed with more than a dozen Rotary families, including the Robertses, for the next two years, until she could move to join relatives in South America. Edith bunked in Margaret’s room, and she left an impression. “She was 17, tall, beautiful, evidently from a well-to-do family,” Thatcher later wrote in her memoir. But most important, “[s]he told us what it was like to live as a Jew under an anti-Semitic regime. One thing Edith reported particularly stuck in my mind: The Jews, she said, were being made to scrub the streets.” For Thatcher, who believed in meaningful work, this was as much a waste as it was an outrage. Had the Roberts family not intervened, Edith recalled years later, “I would have stayed in Vienna and they would have killed me.” Thatcher never forgot the lesson: “Never hesitate to do whatever you can, for you may save a life,” she told audiences in 1995 after Edith had been located, alive and well, in Brazil.

Margaret Thatcher’s lesson is especially pertinent since the date of her passing was on Yom Hashoah, and the fight against anti-Semitism in both its old and new forms is still as relevant as ever. As the article concludes:

Throughout Thatcher’s life, this commitment never waned. Divisive as she was, her energetic work to supplant British support for the Arab boycott of Israel, her hectoring of Soviet Union officials about the treatment of Jewish refuseniks, her inclusion of Jewish leaders in her cabinet (to the frustration of some), and her landmark visit to Israel–the first by a sitting British prime minister–will likely keep her as a cherished figure in the collective Jewish memory for a long time to come.

Halevai (if only!) all other politicians were as principled as Margaret Thatcher regarding Israel and the Jews.

May her memory be for a blessing.

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5 Responses to Margaret Thatcher, RIP

  1. TerryD says:

    This is one of the most respectful, beautiful and honest tribute to Lady Thatcher I have read or heard. She was truly a leader of Churchillian proportions and the world is lesser for her passing.

  2. Brian Goldfarb says:

    Much as I found her domestic politics utterly not to my liking, I must give her credence for one of her political acts: the passing of the UK war crimes legislation, which was all of a piece with her general attitude towards Jews and Israel (and her actions in saving a Jewish life during the late 1930s). That it turned out, in the end, not to be effective and was fairly rapidly repealed does not detract from her efforts to get it on the statute book and her belief in the rightness of doing so.

    It wasn’t just for “show”.

  3. Reality says:

    she was an amazing principled woman who didn’t take cr..p from anyone. She steadfastly stood her ground for months during the miners strike & told everyone that she knows its hard to cope without electicity -especially during the cold winter months, but it will be for everyones good. I wish todays leaders here & around the world had her resolve.-I’d forgotten that she came to our house(I was really too young to remember-we just ate the rest of the cakes that the ladies hadn’t eaten!) I do remeber being confused that if she was friendly with Jews how come she couldn’t understand Begin. But generally life was easier under her (iron) thumb& England grew stronger for it. There was definitley almost no anti semitic problems then . May her memory be a blessing

  4. Earl says:

    Fortitude. Dedication. Single-mindedness. I was very fortunate to have lived through that period and watch her and RR fundamentally restructure the political landscape in the West. RIP, Baroness Thatcher.

    “This is no time to go wobbly, George”. A classic for the ages.

  5. Elli D. says:

    She was a remarkable, smart and strong woman, that tried to change the world and succeeded. She is a great role model for all the young women in the world. Her ruling showed us that we can succeed, if we are confident and if we work hard enough. She always knew what she was talking about and no one could prove her wrong – this was the secret to her success. This is what everyone should remember her for. She was an example of the fact that hard work really pays off.

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