Remembering Margaret Thatcher

British leader's "support for Jewish causes" more pertinent to Finchley demographics; Jewish people lost "faithful friend."

Thatcher vigil 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Thatcher vigil 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
While the late Margaret Thatcher earned a reputation as the most “philosemitic” British leader of recent times, it has frequently been suggested that her support for Jewish causes had more to do with the demographics of her Finchley constituency (where Jews comprised about 20 percent of the electorate) than an inherent sympathy with the issues themselves.
Certainly, her decision to court the Jews during her early career was informed by political considerations.
When she first contested Finchley in 1959, many Jews were disenchanted with the Conservatives over the support of local party members for their exclusion from Finchley Golf Club and the Liberal opposition was, by championing their cause, steadily gaining electoral ground. Thatcher immediately began targeting the Jewish vote, denouncing the golf club bar, actively recruiting young Jews into Conservative branch organizations and publicly enlisting the Jewish MP, Keith Joseph, as a campaign supporter.
Although she won the seat with a 16,000 majority, the Liberal advance continued; by 1963 they had won four-fifths of local council seats and had chosen Finchley as Target No. 1 for the 1964 general election. Energized by the possibility of losing her seat, Thatcher continued to court her Jewish constituents, turning them into “one of the strongest pillars of her local support.”
She was consequently returned to the Commons, although her majority was almost halved. Later as prime minister, she would regularly win two-thirds of the national Jewish vote.
But it would be unfair to attribute Thatcher’s philo-semitism solely to political pragmatism. For it derived, in the main, from her deep Methodistical affinity with what she saw as traditional Jewish values such as ambition, assiduousness and enterprise and she surrounded herself with Jewish political associates and advisers. At one point she had five Jewish ministers in a Cabinet of 22, prompting the observation that it contained “more old Estonians than Old Etonians.”
Thatcher herself did not understand the anti-Semitism to which what The Spectator called her “choosing the Jews” gave rise, having developed an abhorrence of the prejudice at an early age after a visit by an Austrian Jewish penfriend of her sister’s, Edith Muhlbaur, after the Anschluss who described for the Thatchers “what it was like to live as a Jew under an anti-Semitic regime.”
The fact that Thatcher had, in the words of one Jewish Cabinet colleague, “not the faintest trace of anti-Semitism in her make-up” was “an unusual attribute” in a party in which what Geoffrey Howe called “malodorous streaks” occasionally surfaced, most notably during the Leon Brittan affair in the mid-1980s.
Thatcher also greatly admired Judaism’s emphasis on family and community.
She frequently praised the manner in which Finchley’s Jews looked after their own community welfare and wished that “Christians themselves would take closer note of the Jewish emphasis on self-help and acceptance of personal responsibility.” She herself paid far more attention to the social philosophy of the UK’s chief rabbi, Immanuel Jakobovits, than she did to that of the Archbishop of Canterbury, to the extent that he was described as the real spiritual leader of Thatcherite Britain. Jakobovits was elevated to the House of Lords in 1988 as a mark of her personal respect, the first rabbi ever to receive this honor.
Thatcher’s admiration for the Jewish tradition meant that she was instinctively well-disposed toward Israel, which she described as “one of the heroic sagas of our age.” She expressed her early support by joining organizations such as the Anglo-Israel Friendship League and the Conservative Friends of Israel while, as a member of the 1970-1974 Conservative government, she frequently asserted Israel’s case against the “traditional Tory Arabists” who dominated the Cabinet (for instance, she argued against Israel’s inclusion in the regional arms embargo imposed by Britain during the Yom Kippur War).
In fact, so closely was Thatcher identified with Israel in this period that the Foreign Office urged her to sever links with Jewish and pro-Israeli organizations when she became Conservative leader in February 1975 “to counter Arab fears and suspicions that [she was] already a prisoner of the Zionists.”
But as prime minister, Thatcher proved herself to be far more “evenhanded” than many had expected. In her 2002 foreign policy treatise, Statecraft, she expressed her belief that “the moral claims of both Jews and Arabs to the land... are based upon solid foundations.” And, while she never compromised on her commitment to Israel’s security, she strongly supported the Palestinian cause, arguing that Israel would “only find peace and security... by recognising the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people and their just requirements.”
However, while Thatcher conceded the PLO’s centrality to the process earlier than most (she reluctantly sanctioned British government contacts as far back as July 1982), she believed that Palestinian self-determination would find its most suitable expression through a federation with Jordan. Convinced that the United States alone had the power to broker a settlement, she expended considerable energy urging the Reagan administration to furnish stronger support for King Hussein and adopt a more sympathetic position toward the Palestinians. In this she believed she ultimately failed.
However, Thatcher laid major blame for the impasse in Middle East peacemaking at the door of the Likud which led government for all but two of her 11 years in power. She harbored considerable distaste for Menahem Begin due to what she described as the Irgun’s anti-British “crimes” (in 1983 she forced the withdrawal of Eliahu Lankin’s appointment as ambassador to London on the grounds that he had been an Irgun commander) and she was scathingly critical of what she saw as Yitzhak Shamir’s “hardline” approach to the Palestinian issue. She believed peace was possible under Shimon Peres, with whom she developed a close working relationship during his 1984-1986 term as prime minister. But she left office with little to show for her efforts. In the words her biographer, John Campbell; “Mrs. Thatcher got nowhere on the Middle East, but she deserves credit for trying.”
However, despite her personal pro- Zionist sympathies, London-Jerusalem relations were far from smooth during Thatcher’s period in office. There were frequent diplomatic spats over UK-PLO contacts, the al-Yamamah arms deal and criticisms of Israeli policy by British ministers such as David Mellor. Relations between the Israeli and British intelligence services were also strained, mainly by the discovery that Mossad was using false British passports and infiltrating British-based Palestinian groups without informing the UK authorities. In October 1986, a fierce row erupted over Mordechai Vanunu’s disappearance from London with Israel forced to deny that he was abducted on British soil. Matters came to a head in June 1988 when Thatcher closed down Mossad’s London station.
But despite these difficulties, Thatcher was esteemed by most Israelis. Her unyielding opposition to terrorism impressed in a country which more than any other has suffered its scourge and her visits always caused a stir, most notably her May 1986 state visit (the first ever by a British prime minister) during which she dropped to her knees in Yad Vashem’s memorial hall in what her biographer, Hugo Young, called “the unfeigned reaction of a highly emotional friend of the Jewish people.”
Her horror at the depravity of the Holocaust, deepened by a visit to Babi Yar in June 1990, lay behind her determination to force her War Crimes Bill, which proposed the prosecution in Britain of suspected Nazi war criminals, through a reluctant House of Lords. It became law in May 1991, six months after she was ousted from office.
Thatcher’s frequent interventions on behalf of Soviet Jewry were also appreciated.
Indeed, she won both the “King David” and the “Friends of Zion” awards in part for her championship of their cause.
The Jewish state has lost a staunch supporter, the Jewish people a faithful friend.
The writer specializes in Irish/Israeli affairs and is presently researching a PhD