If you had asked Margaret Thatcher about her greatest achievement, she would not have spoken of her victory over Argentina’s dictator Leopoldo Galtieri in the Falklands, or of her victory over the union leader Arthur Scargill at home. She would not have spoken of the role she played, with President Reagan, in bringing down the Soviet empire. Nor would she have spoken of her success in liberalising, deregulating and reshaping Britain. Instead, she would have spoken of Edith Muhlbauer.
Margaret Roberts was just 12 when she encountered Edith, the 17-year-old pen-friend of her older sister, Muriel. Edith had been trapped in Hitler’s anschluss with Austria and, as the round-up of Viennese Jews began, she appealed to Muriel to help her find a refuge in England. The family did not have the means to care for Edith alone so Margaret and Muriel set about raising funds and persuading the local Rotary club to help. Over the next two years, Edith lived with the Roberts family, sleeping in Margaret’s room, as well as with other Rotarian families, until she was able to join relatives in Brazil.
In her memoirs, Thatcher recalled Edith – “tall, beautiful, evidently from a well-to-do family” – describing life for Jews under an antisemitic 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 productive work, this was as much a waste as it was an outrage.
But Thatcher did not forget the larger lesson: “Never hesitate to do whatever you can,” she told an audience in 1995, “for you may save a life.” Edith had by then been found, alive and well, still living in Brazil.
But it was not only this searing childhood memory or the fact that she later represented a constituency with a significant Jewish minority that drew Thatcher to Jews, Jewish causes and Israel. Transcending sentiment and pragmatic impulses was Thatcher’s hard-nosed perception that the qualities of the Jewish community coincided precisely with her own aspirational vision for Britain: self-help and hard work, ambition and endeavour, enterprise, personal responsibility and social justice.
Her mentor and guide was none other than the late Chief Rabbi of Britain, Prussian-born Immanuel Jakobovits. While leaders of the established Church of England sought to remain “relevant” by vacillating on key moral issues, Jakobovits preached an uncompromising message of “up-by-your-bootstraps” self-help, ethical conduct and the primacy of family. Rights and obligations, particularly as they apply to individuals rather than governments, was a constant theme of the Jakobovits doctrine.
It is difficult to gauge precisely the impact he had on Thatcher’s thinking, but it does appear to have been seminal. That friendship was cemented by Jakobovits’s critique of a 1986 report, Faith in the City, commissioned by the then-Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, to provide a blueprint for improving conditions in the depressed inner cities. Its prescription was for a radical increase in state spending – for job creation, welfare payments, child allowances. Thatcher bristled, noting icily that she had read it “with the greatest possible interest.”
Jakobovits shared her distaste. While finding merit in the welfare state as an ultimate safety net, he was appalled by its emphasis on the government’s responsibilities and its failure to refer to the individual’s obligations. A Jewish response, he declared, would “lay greater emphasis on building up self-respect by encouraging ambition and enterprise through a more demanding and more satisfying work ethic, which is designed to eliminate human idleness and to nurture pride in ‘eating the toil of one’s hands’ as the first immediate targets.”
To apoplectic cries from the new left, he turned on the trade unions. Why, he asked, did the church report, have nothing to say about the morality of strikes which impacted most on inhabitants in the inner city? “The selfishness of workers in attempting to secure better conditions at the cost of rising unemployment and immense public misery,” he declared, “can be just as morally indefensible as the rapaciousness of the wealthy in exploiting the working class.”
Thatcher could not have put it better herself. As Hugo Young, a political biographer of the then-Prime Minister, noted: “To Mrs Thatcher it had the ring, at last, of true moral leadership. It marked out the Chief Rabbi as, in effect, the spiritual leader of Thatcherite Britain.” Jakobovits, the first chief rabbi to be knighted, was elevated to the peerage by Thatcher a year after his tumultuous confrontation with the church.
Thatcher did not share the low-grade antisemitism that was endemic in her party, particularly among the Conservative grandees. To the horror of some, she promoted a slew of Jews to the most senior posts in her government, leading one grandee to lament that there were “more old-Estonians than old-Etonians in the cabinet.”
“I simply did not understand anti-Semitism myself,” Thatcher noted in her memoirs. In the mid ’70s she joined a public protest against a golf club in her constituency that excluded Jews. Nor did she resile from joining in the singing of Hatikva, Israel’s national anthem.
Thatcher was instinctively pro-Israel, though not uncritically. Recently declassified papers show that she regarded the then-Israeli Prime Minister, Menahem Begin, as the “most difficult” man with whom she had to deal and that she regarded his policies on West Bank settlements as “absurd”. She gave full vent to her opposition to Israel’s destruction of Iraq’s nuclear facility at Osiraq in 1981 and opposed the appointment of a former Irgun fighter, Eliahu Lankin, as Israel’s Ambassador to Britain because she regarded him as a terrorist. He withdrew.
That did not prevent Israel’s Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, from attending her funeral in St Paul’s Cathedral last month. “She was,” he said, “a woman of principle, of determination, of conviction, of strength, a woman of greatness. She was a staunch friend of Israel and the Jewish people. She inspired a generation of political leaders.”
Thatcher’s astonishing legacy is that she has made the Conservative Party arguably the natural political home for Jewish voters, while injecting Zionism into the soul of her party.