Baroness Margaret Thatcher, Israel and the Jewish people

Apr 12, 2013 | Talia Katz

Baroness Margaret Thatcher
Shimon Peres and Margaret Thatcher

Baroness Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s Conservative Prime Minister from 1979-1990, and MP for Finchley and Golders Green from 1959-1992 died of a stroke at the age of 87 on Monday April 8 2013.

Thatcher’s reputation as the “Iron Lady” reflected her self-proclaimed status as a conviction politician, and this is echoed in the eulogies delivered following her death. Though her legacy has divided opinion, when it came to Israel and the Jewish people, she is remembered for her strong, supportive and effective foreign policy credentials, and her dedication to fighting antisemitism in all its guises.

As a member of Parliament, representing a large Jewish constituency, and as Britain’s longest serving PM in over a hundred years, Thatcher was widely recognised as both a true friend and strong ally to the Jewish people and to the State of Israel.

World leaders – in Britain, in Europe, in the US and in Australia – have lined up to pay their respects to the woman who famously announced she was “not for turning.”

In Israel, Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu released a statement honouring her character.

Today I mourn the passing of Prime Minister Baroness Margaret Thatcher. She was truly a great leader, 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. I send my most sincere condolences to her family and to the government and people of Great Britain.

Israel’s President Shimon Peres, a personal friend of Baroness Thatcher, spoke reverentially about his late friend and colleague. 

Lady Thatcher was an exceptional leader, a colleague in the international arena and friend, for me personally, and for my country. I’ve never seen a more courageous and clear-minded leader like her. She was a true and dedicated friend of Israel, who stood with us in times of crisis, and used her influence to help us in trying to make peace. During our negotiations with the Jordanians and the King himself, in the late 1980s, she stood as a mediator, and source of wisdom for me and for the kind of Jordan, the late King Hussein. I send my sincere condolences to her family, her friends and the people of Great Britain; we shall remember her always with great admiration and hope. God bless her memory.

British Ambassador to Israel Matthew Gould told Israel Hayom that Thatcher had been “a very strong friend of Israel.”

From the very early days she made it clear in the things she said and the things she did that she believed in Israel and that she was a friend of the Jewish people. She represented a constituency in London which was one of the places where many of the Jewish community lived, and she had a very clear affection for the Jewish community.

Ambassador of Israel to the United Nations Ron Prosor wrote in Haaretz that Thatcher’s legacy is “a torch of moral clarity” for those who would defend democracy and freedom in the Middle East today.

In her economic and foreign policies, Thatcher emphasized self-reliance and self-preservation. She saw the forces of freedom being subverted and undermined by the most dangerous of totalitarian ideologies. She had the courage and the chutzpah to speak out against these dangers – even when it was more politically convenient to simply turn a blind eye.

It is no surprise that the Baroness was a great admirer of the State of Israel. Unlike many of her fellow members of Parliament, the Iron Lady had the ability to see Israel for what it was: a bastion of liberty in the world’s greatest hotbed of tyranny. As she herself once put it-in a statement quite fitting for Israel’s upcoming Independence Day-“the political and economic construction of Israel against huge odds and bitter adversaries is one of the heroic sagas of our age.

Thatcher belonged to a generation of luminaries that is slowly fading. She stood shoulder-to-shoulder with visionaries who never hesitated to stand up for basic values of human decency. Like Winston Churchill, her predecessor, Thatcher had no delusions about the threats that free-loving peoples face – and the steps that a democracy must take to defend itself from those who seek to do it harm.

In fact, her political activism found expression at an early age, during the horrors of World War II. In a famous anecdote as related by Charles C Johnson in Tablet Magazine: 

In 1938, Edith Muhlbauer, a 17-year-old Jewish girl, wrote to 17 Muriel Roberts, Edith’s pen pal and the future prime minister’s 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.

In a Wall Street Journal  obituary, Andrew Roberts noted that Thatcher considered this act of charity to be the greatest single achievement of her life.

That this event so stood out for Thatcher reveals a strong worldview centered on waging the battle against human suffering under totalitarian governments. This was clearly evident in her dealings with the former Soviet Union and other dictatorial leaders, and provides lessons for today’s international leadership.

When the Soviet propaganda ministry pinned the label “Iron Lady” on her, it was meant to draw attention to her inflexibility. “Any leader has to have a certain amount of steel in them,” she replied, “so I am not that put out being called the Iron Lady.”

When she was in power, her attitude toward dictatorships’ threats and bullying-be it the Argentine junta over the Falkland Islands or Saddam Hussein before the Gulf War-was precisely the tough and uncompromising stance from which the P5+1 group constantly shrinks. The advice she gave to President George H.W. Bush in 1990-“This is no time to go wobbly, George”-is desperately needed today.

The Jerusalem Post‘s Sean Gannon opined that her respect for and affiliation with Jewish values saw her surround herself with five Jewish Cabinet ministers, as well as Jewish political associates and advisers.

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 State of Israel is well documented, but she also had a tumultuous relationship with then Likud Prime Minister Menahem Begin, and his conservative colleagues. According to Gannon:

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.”

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.”

In Tablet, Charles C Johnson confirms Thatcher’s conviction in her principles and beliefs and her propensity to act accordingly, and often in the interests of Jews and Israel.

She made Jewish causes her own, including by easing the restrictions on prosecuting Nazi war criminals living in Britain and pleading the cause of the Soviet Union’s refuseniks. She boasted that she once made Soviet officials “nervous” by repeatedly bringing up the refuseniks’ plight during a single nine-hour meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev, “The Soviets had to know that every time we met their treatment of the refuseniks would be thrown back at them,” she explained in her book The Downing Street Years. Thatcher also worked to end the British government’s support for the Arab boycott of Israel. During the Yom Kippur War of 1973, Thatcher criticized Tory Prime Minister Ted Heath’s refusal to supply Israel with military parts or even allow American planes to supply Israel from British airfields. In 1986, Thatcher became the first British prime minister to visit Israel, having previously visited twice as a member of parliament.

The Jerusalem Post editorial was full of praise for Thatcher, always independent-minded and driven by her own convictions, despite her clear affinity for the State of Israel.

Thatcher was impressed by the tremendous achievements of the plucky Jewish state as well, though she was consistently critical of Israel’s policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians and opposed the Begin government’s airstrike on the Osirak nuclear facility in 1981 as well as its decision to invade Lebanon in 1982.

Thatcher’s admiration for Israel is expressed clearly in her memoirs: “The political and economic construction of Israel against huge odds and bitter adversaries is one of the heroic sagas of our age. They really made the desert bloom.”

Baroness Margaret Thatcher will no doubt be remembered as much for her strength of character and conviction, as her strong leadership on issues of conscience, especially when it came to the Jewish people and the State of Israel.


– Talia Katz


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