Unlikely friends to the Jews

Two recent books cast new light upon Thatcher and Churchill, with results both intriguing and surprising for their reputations as friends to the Jews.

Margaret Thatcher 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Margaret Thatcher 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
LOVE OF the Jews can be as unexpected and profound a moral mystery as unreasoning hatred of them.
Two outstanding British prime ministers of the 20th century, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, were known for their strong, and frequently expressed, philo- Semitic views. Such opinions are handicaps in British political life. Another prime minister, Harold Macmillan, expressed views closer to the norm when cattily remarking about Thatcher's cabinet that she had replaced all the Old Etonians “with old Estonians.”
However, two recent excellent books have cast new light upon Thatcher and Churchill, with results both intriguing and surprising for their reputations as friends to Jews.
Until Thatcher ran for parliament in Finchley in London, in 1959, she had hardly interacted with a Jew in her life and when she had, the results were not always happy.
Her father, the modest family grocer Alfred Roberts, we learn from the first volume of Charles Moore’s riveting new biography, had saved a young Jewish girl’s life before World War II by volunteering a home for her as part of the famous 1938-39 kindertransport.
But the humble Roberts home (it is one of the many surprises in this great book to find out just how modest) was not to the guest’s liking. She quickly retreated to more upscale accommodation leaving a heritage of social inferiority and resentment in her wake.
The young Margaret Roberts was nothing if not a social climber herself. This turned out to be the unexpected but enduring foundation for her lifelong admiration for the Jewish people. The Jews of Finchley proved to be a revelation for the young Mrs. Thatcher. It was a match made in the Methodist heaven she was raised to believe in.
She was a workaholic, social-climbing snob, endlessly giving herself new airs and graces. So were they. Just as Orde Wingate found the Old Testament Biblical warrior-heroes of his fundamentalist Plymouth Brethren upbringing in the young Moshe Dayan, Yigal Allon and their fellow Hagana pioneers, Thatcher found the serious, relentlessly upwardly mobile, disciplined, focused families, idealized in her upbringing, in the Jews of Finchley.
Thatcher, on the basis of the mountains of evidence Moore accumulates in what is clearly going to be the classic, definitive biography (a second volume is scheduled to complete the story), was hell to live with and not at all a nice person. Her husband Dennis, a hugely successful businessman, proved to be the crucial emotional and financial support for her success. But even he fled her for a few months early in their marriage.
Her treatment of her doting father, to whom she owed so much, in his last years was simply shameful, a reality Moore honorably acknowledges. But she grew into far, far more than her humble beginnings.
When Israel faced the threat of total destruction and a new genocide in the darkest moments of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Thatcher, then only an extremely humble minister (in everyone else’s eyes, but certainly not her own) told the rest of the Cabinet, according to the official minutes, that the British government “must say no question of Israel being wiped off the face of the Earth.” Prime Minister Edward Heath immediately slapped her down, saying, “Don’t accept Educ’s (Education Minister’s) view of public opinion. It’s a Jewish-inspired press campaign.”
The two intellectual gurus she most valued were Jewish, Keith Joseph, whom she elevated to the House of Lords, and Alfred Sherman, whom she knighted. But she had already loved Israel when she first visited it as a simple Member of Parliament in 1967.
“They don’t pay people for being idle in Israel,” she said. High praise coming from her. One wonders what she would have made of government handouts to the Haredim.
Immanuel Jakobovits, Chief Rabbi of Britain, was a more complex case. She loved his old-fashioned, even innocent and very naïve, black-and-white view of morality and the Ten Commandments, something she often complained she could not find in a single bishop of the Church of England.
Jakobovits’s own self-righteous propensity to always lecture Israel over its alleged, not to mention imagined, iniquities, did not go down badly with her either. But she drew the line when Jakobovits whined during the Falklands War that compassion should be shown for the families of terrorist murderers too. Her mentor and cherished friend Airey Neave had lost his life to Irish Republican terrorists.
Thatcher was Britain’s Charles De Gaulle, even its Ariel Sharon. Like them, she rallied a country beset by civic strife and murderous terrorism and restored its security, prosperity and pride to stand again strong and defiant in the world.
Her achievements were lasting and real.
But as Charles Moore documents in this superb book, did ever a heroic, towering oak spring from a more unlikely acorn? NO WARRIOR FOR ZION Lawrence James is arguably the finest living historian on the subject of the British Empire. His latest work, on the role the Empire played in the life, policies and imagination of Sir Winston Churchill adheres to his usual, exceptional standard.
For a Jewish or Israeli reader, however, what will be astonishing is what a small role Jews, Zionism and the State of Israel play in it.
Churchill’s famous sympathy for Zionism was real. However, he played no role whatsoever in the decision-making processes that led to the issuing of the Balfour Declaration in 1917, as James correctly notes.
James follows Churchill’s official biographer, Sir Martin Gilbert, in recognizing the importance of Churchill’s championing of the British commitment to building a Jewish National Home in Palestine during the crucial years of 1921-22. At that time, popular and political opposition to the Balfour policy peaked in Britain and Churchill’s rousing defense of it was crucial at a time when the enterprise hung in the political balance.
Churchill certainly spoke out against Nazi genocide policy in the strongest possible terms during World War II. However, he never once ordered the resources of any department of the British government to be focused on the work of rescue, in striking contrast to US President Franklin Roosevelt, who, early in 1944, by executive order set up the War Refugees Board to be run and funded out of the Treasury Department under that most underestimated, taken-for-granted and magnificent figure, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr.
By the most cautious and judicious estimates of Howard M. Sachar, dean of modern Jewish historians, in “The History of the Jews in the Modern World,” the WRB, under the heroic leadership of John Pehle (who was not Jewish) saved at least 90,000 lives from the Holocaust. Bearing in mind its close cooperation with other key figures such as Angelo Roncalli, Papal Nuncio in the Balkans who became Pope John XXIII, and the legendary Raoul Wallenberg in Budapest, the number of Jews whom the WRB contributed to saving arguably runs to well over half a million. Yet today, Pehle is so forgotten that he does not even have his own Wikipedia entry.
Moreover, Churchill took no action whatsoever to repeal the infamous 1939 White Paper, virtually banning Jewish immigration into Palestine. He upheld throughout the war the disgusting policy that required the Royal Navy to turn refugee boats carrying hundreds of terrified, doomed people back to certain extermination in European ports. He never even attempted to bribe or persuade Arab leaders to ameliorate their blanket opposition to Jewish immigration into Palestine. As James documents, FDR, by contrast did at least attempt such a policy with the king of Saudi Arabia in 1942. Ibn Saud, of course, flatly rejected it.
Nor did Churchill, unlike Thatcher's father, have anything to do with the greatest positive achievement of Britain in the face of the Holocaust, the kindertransport, which rescued 10,000 Jewish children from Germany between Kristallnacht in November 1938 and the outbreak of war in September 1939.
In fact, the outstanding figure in the British establishment who was extremely active in privately opening doors for the kindertransport was former prime minister Stanley Baldwin, who also resolutely kept the immigration doors to Palestine open during his six crucial years running the British government from 1931 to 1937.
The kindertransport was also greatly aided by a deeply sympathetic home secretary, Samuel Hoare. Churchill loathed Baldwin and Hoare as appeasers, but they had vastly better records on Jewish rescue than he did.
Churchill’s one real gesture of approval for Israel – and it was a passive one – was when his post-war government in 1954 approved the sale of Gloster Meteor jet fighters to the embattled young state. Even then, the real credit for pushing through approval for the deal belonged to the now forgotten secretary of state for air, William Sidney, Lord De L’Isle and Dudley.
This real record, honorably chronicled by James, is far removed from the wondrous Churchill myth. But when we grow up, we have to learn to put fairytales aside.