1925-2013

Margaret Thatcher, the British PM Who Praised Israel's 'Pioneer Spirit'

The first British PM to visit Israel while in office, Margaret Thatcher, who died Monday aged 87, admired the Jewish work ethic and supported Palestinian self-determination.

Margaret Thatcher who died of a stroke at 87 on Monday, was the first serving British prime minister ever to visit Israel. During her landmark visit in 1986, she was asked why Queen Elizabeth has never found the time to tour the Holy Land, to which she answered, "but I'm here."

Of course, when one reviews the "firsts" and other achievements by Thatcher over her long career, the fact that she was the first British prime minister to stare down the Arabists of the Foreign Office and visit Jerusalem is way down on the list. Even the fact that she was the first (and only) female British prime minister pales alongside her record of being the woman who became the most reviled political figure in Britain since Winston Churchill.

The Thatcher years for Britain's Jews will be remembered as a period in which the local community had long been seen as largely leaning to the left, moved rightward as part of its increasing identification as part of the aspiring middle class. Thatcher was a deep admirer of what she saw as the Jewish work ethic and of a community that had not waited for social hand-outs to raise itself out of poverty and succeed. Thatcher was known for many years to be close to the Jewish community, largely as a result of representing Finchley in parliament, a constituency with a very large number of Jewish voters.

The large number of Jewish ministers who at one time or another occupied, among others, the senior posts of foreign and defense secretary and chancellor of the exchequer, caused one former Tory prime minister to comment that Thatcher's cabinet had "more old Estonians than old Etonians," showing the lingering anti-Semitism that still existed in the Conservative party even in the 1980s.

But Thatcher's admiration of Jews was firm and she wrote in her memoirs that "I never had a Jew come in poverty and desperation," exhorting Christians to learn from "the Jewish emphasis on self-help and acceptance of personal responsibility."

Early in her political career, Thatcher also sought to know the Jewish state better and in 1963 asked the Foreign Office to help organize her visit to Israel. The British diplomats did not seem very eager to help the young parliamentarian but she insisted and finally made her first visit in 1965. In an address to the Anglo-Israel Friendship League of Finchley, following her visit, she said that "Israel holds out the hand of friendship to all who will accept" and related how she "was impressed by their sense of purpose and complete dedication, their pioneer spirit, and their realism." But despite praising the way the Israelis were building the land, she noted the high property prices and interest rates.

Thatcher wasn't the first pro-Israel prime minister in Britain. Winston Churchill and Harold Wilson were also both philo-semites and pro-Zionist but she was the first to overcome the opposition of the Foreign Office and visit Israel while in office. Despite this, her relationship with Israel's politicians was not always very friendly.

She saw Prime Minister Menachem Begin as someone who "could kill the whole (peace) process" and believed he was the "most difficult" man she had to deal with in her early years as prime minister. She was a supporter both of Palestinian self-determination and of the early talks between the U.S. administration and the PLO in 1988. She also continued the policies of her predecessors who refused major arms sales to Israel or the sale of North Sea oil so as not to anger Britain's Arab allies.

But her friendship with the Jewish people cannot be doubted. Once, when asked of her most significant achievement, she said that it was persuading her father Alfred Roberts to help finance the immigration of her sister's pen-pal, 17 year-old Edith Muhlbauer from Austria, following the Nazi takeover in 1938. The Thatcher sisters helped raise the money and convinced families in Grantham to host Edith who, when she arrived, told the 12 year-old Margaret of life under the Nazis. The young girl would say nearly six decades later that she had learned, "never hesitate to do whatever you can, for you may save a life." 

Still divisive after all these years

It is hard to put into words the hatred many Britons still harbor toward Thatcher, even two decades after her Conservative Party colleagues deposed her - both those who felt they belonged to the sector of society that didn’t enjoy the fruits of economic prosperity during her years and those who sympathized with them.

When it was announced in London that she had died, thousands took to the social networks to express their feelings. Ally Fogg, a journalist from northern England summed it up when he tweeted, "I watched as people's whole lives and communities were devastated in the 80s. No emotion today but prevailing sadness for them." And on the other side of the social and political divide were those venerating the memory of "the Lady." (Never "the Iron Lady," that was a pejorative title she was awarded by the Soviets.)

Thatcherism, as a definition of socioeconomic policy became one of the most charged and powerful words of the political landscape in the second half of the 20th Century, not only in Britain but throughout the world. For its supporters it meant the supremacy of market economics, free from the pesky restrictions of trade unions, government regulations and stifling bureaucracy. An ideology which idolized private initiative and individual success. For its detractors, Thatcherism is all that is evil in swinish capitalism, ignoring the needs of the downtrodden, the rights of workers – a belief that for them was epitomized in what was perhaps Thatcher's most famous quote, "there is no such thing as society."

Like every political quote, this was also taken somewhat out of context. In a 1987 interview, she was speaking of those who "have been given to understand 'I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it’." These people, she said, "are casting their problems upon society, and who is society? There are individual men and women and there are families, and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first." Only after this preamble did she say “there is no such thing as society”. But for her ideological opponents, many who were born after she left Downing Street, that will remain her legacy. Such a devastating legacy that even current Prime Minister David Cameron, the leader of Thatcher's party, had to distance himself from and say that "there is such a thing society, but it's not the same as the state."

More than anything, Thatcher was defined by the battles she fought throughout her life. Her insistence on studying chemistry at Oxford University, not a path normally taken by a daughter of the lower-middle class, and her decision at the age of 24 to run for parliament as a Conservative candidate in the 1950 elections. It was doubly daunting as she had to face the snobbish Tory establishment which looked down on her as a young woman, without an independent income, the daughter of a grocer from little Grantham, and she was running in an industrial seat held by Labour. She inevitably lost her first election and fought for nine years to contest a safer seat until she was elected in 1959 as a member of parliament for Finchley in northern London. At the time only four percent of MPs were female.

In 1960, Thatcher was appointed as a junior minister for pensions and social security, not so much for her talents as due to the fact that there was no other woman at the time in a ministerial role. She excelled and acquired a deep knowledge of social policy and when the party lost power, she became its spokesman on taxation though the party grandees objected to promoting her to the shadow cabinet. But her growing prominence as a forceful speaker left them with little choice and she was appointed shadow minister for energy, and then transport and finally education. When the party returned to power in 1970, she, as education secretary,  was the first woman in a senior cabinet position in British history.

As education secretary, she commanded a national platform where she fought with teachers' unions and the opposition, supporting the rights of meritocratic state-funded grammar schools to select their students. But she was most remembered for her decision to cut the budget allocation for free milk in schools which conferred on her the title of "Thatcher – milk snatcher" and a headline in The Sun (which was not yet a Thatcherite tabloid) describing her as "The Most Unpopular Woman in Britain." In cabinet, she fought Prime Minister Edward Heath and the majority of ministers she accused of not standing up to the trade unions that threatened to paralyze the country. After the Tories lost in 1974, she was resolved to changing the face of the party.

In early 1975, she decided to challenge Heath for the leadership and while few in the party (not even Thatcher herself at that stage) believed she would ever be prime minister, she succeeded in rallying around the party's internal opposition, beating Heath and in a second vote becoming the new leader. She was still nevertheless limited by internal rivalries within an antiquated patriarchal party which had long ago lost touch with the British public and her image as a shrill and divisive figure. But in four years in opposition, she transformed herself, with a lot of help from PR experts, in a process that included changing her wardrobe and hairstyle, voice development sessions, and a gradual hardening of her rhetoric against the trade unions that were rapidly losing favor with much of the British public.

The destructive "Winter of Discontent" strikes of 1978-79 caused Labour's popularity to plummet and in May 3, 1979, she was elected the first female prime minister of Great Britain with a small but stable majority.

Thatcher's years on Downing Street were even stormier than her rise to the top. Not a single one of her policies went through without bitter opposition. From the battle to close hundreds of coal mines, which led to a protracted and violent strike by the powerful miners' union and caused immense hardship in small mining communities. Thatcher broke the power of the trade unions through legislation and a monetary policy which accepted the passing away of much of Britain's industrial sector, which had financed its transformation into an empire for nearly two centuries and the nation's transformation into the financial-services giant it is today. On the way, millions lost their livelihood and the social safety-net was badly frayed.

Her stern policy toward the terror organizations in Northern Ireland, including her decision not to treat their prisoners as soldiers but as criminals, caused a heightening of their terror campaign, which included an assassination attempt at the Brighton hotel Thatcher was staying at on the eve of a party conference. Five people were killed, but Thatcher, who emerged unscathed, insisted on opening the conference as planned.

In early 1982, Thatcher's government languished in the polls due to the cutback and a lingering recession. The decision by Argentina's Junta to invade the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic gave Thatcher the chance to prove herself as a war leader, ordering against the will of her American allies who urged diplomacy, a fleet to recapture the islands. Two months later, the islands were recaptured and while her call to the British to "rejoice" was seen by some as cold-hearted after 255 servicemen had been killed, victory and the beginnings of financial recovery led to a landslide victory in the 1983 elections.

Thatcher was also seen as a hardliner regarding the Soviet Union and was U.S. President Ronald Reagan's staunch partner in NATO's rearmament and in agreeing to place American short-range nuclear missiles on British and European soil. Historians will continue to argue whether Reagan and Thatcher's policy hastened the fall of Soviet bloc but she remained in office to welcome reformist leader Mikhail Gorbachev to London and announce that the Cold War was over.

Her political downfall was to come due to her socioeconomic policy. Following Thatcher's insistence on a uniform "poll tax" in 1989 that brought about massive violent demonstrations, her senior party colleagues believed that, despite winning three election campaigns in a row, she was an even more divisive and hated figure than ever by the British public. Even Queen Elizabeth, who never intervenes in politics, expressed she had created social divides that were too wide.

In addition, her opposition to the European Community policies was in danger of ruining Britain's relations with the continent. In November 1990, a cabal of ministers brought about a leadership challenge and while Thatcher won the first round, she failed to receive sufficient votes to see off any further challenges and on November 28, resigned, leaving Downing Street in tears.

Moshe Milner / GPO