A Friendship Without Prejudice: Thatcher’s Kinship With Jews and Israel

Thatcher’s personal narrative of the determined outsider made good has clear Jewish resonances, and may explain her well-known affinity for Jews and her defense of Israel.

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Even in death, Margaret Thatcher manages to bring out all of the ugly class anxieties and animosities of the British people. Within minutes of her passing, raucous street parties erupted all over the land, with left-wing Britons trotting out signs like "The Bitch is Dead" and dancing to explicitly anti-Thatcher songs by Morrissey and Elvis Costello (the latter of whom sang a ditty imploring listeners to "tramp the dirt down" atop Thatcher's grave).

Despite the critical post-mortems, Margaret Thatcher played a central role in the defeat of the Soviet Union, wrested a national economy from the stranglehold of undemocratic and violent union bosses, and gave her countrymen (and women) reason to feel that the "Great" truly belonged in "Great Britain." Illustrative of the extent to which Thatcher polarized the U.K. was the recent column in the Financial Times by historian Niall Ferguson subtly titled, "Margaret Thatcher: Right about Nearly Everything."

No matter one's views about the late prime minister, one cannot disagree with Ferguson's conclusion that she was "more respected abroad than she ever was at
home." Untouched by her revolutionary ¬ and, for many Britons, painful economic reforms, we foreigners naturally see her with a different set of spectacles. And among those who have reason to view her most positively are Israelis and Jews.

Thatcher's affinity for Jews has much to do with her life story. The daughter of a devout Methodist grocer, Thatcher learned the ethics of honesty and hard work at the feet of her father. She valued education immensely, earning a degree in chemistry from Oxford at a time when few women attended that august institution.

A career in Conservative Party politics was also a steep climb; her lower-middle-class background contrasted with the traditional Tory leadership,composed as it was of wealthy landowners, captains of industry, and the aristocracy. Thatcher's astounding rise through the party and to the position of prime minister  - the first and only woman to achieve that position - is the prototypical narrative of the determined outsider who proved the naysayers wrong.

One cannot help, then, but see the similarities between Margaret Thatcher's life and that of the Jews, writ large. She was also profoundly affected, at a young age, by the murderous intolerance that has followed Jews throughout history. In an excellent 2011 essay, Charles C. Johnson reported how, when asked about her greatest accomplishment in life, Thatcher said it was helping a young Austrian girl flee from the Nazis. As a 12-year-old, young Margaret Roberts went around her neighborhood raising money to provide shelter for her older sister's pen pal Edith Muhlbauer. After the 1938 Anschluss, the 17-year-old Muhlbauer fled to the U.K. and stayed with the Roberts' for several weeks, eventually reuniting with her own family in Argentina. "I simply did not understand anti-Semitism myself," Thatcher later wrote in her memoirs.

Her personal confidantes attest to this trait. Thatcher was "totally without prejudice," relates John O'Sullivan, who served as a speechwriter to Thatcher. "By the period of High Thatcherism gossip began to spread through London dinner parties to the effect that Jews were not only God's but also the prime minister's chosen people." This was due to the unprecedented number of Jews Thatcher appointed to her cabinet, leading former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to crack that, while his government was "full of Old Etonians," hers was replete with "Old Estonians."

"Mrs. Thatcher was indeed philo-Semitic, but not in the way indicated by this gossip," O'Sullivan continues. "She sympathized with Jewish theology on wealth creation which she felt was similar to the Methodism of her youth - one of her favorite sayings was Wesley's 'Earn all you can; save all you can; give all you can' - and very different from the Anglican Bishops' social democratic stress on state welfare and redistribution in the pamphlet 'The Church in the City.' She was a great admirer too of England's Chief Rabbi, Lord Jakobovitz, whom she elevated to the Lords. And she was impressed by the work of Jewish charities that she saw in her constituency of Finchley which had a large Jewish population."

Thatcher was also a friend, though not an uncritical one, of Israel. Fears that she was unduly influenced by the Jews of Finchley led a bureaucrat in the Foreign Office to pen a communique shortly after her election as Conservative Party leader in which he speculated that she would be viewed by Arab states as a "prisoner of the Zionists."

She was the first British Prime Minister to make a state visit to Israel and, alongside her ideological soul mate Ronald Reagan, was relentless in pushing the issue of Jewish refuseniks in the face of the Soviet Union. One also imagines that her personal experiences with terrorism ¬ from the IRA murder of her friend and colleague Airey Neave in a 1979 car bomb, to the attempt on her own life at the Conservative Party conference in 1984 ¬ led her to sympathize with Israel's plight.

The British can debate Thatcher's enduring legacy in their country. But as far as her international reputation goes, let it be said that there were few people in the 20th century more significant in the fight for freedom, nor more principled in standing up to authoritarian bullies, than Margaret Thatcher. It's only natural that she was also a valiant defender of the Jewish state.

James Kirchick is a Berlin-based fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @jkirchick                   

Margaret Thatcher with Golda Meir during her visit in Israel in 1976.Credit: Moshe Milner / GPO

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