Margaret Thatcher is being remembered in the United Kingdom and around the world as the fearless conviction politician who rescued Britain from its decline into sclerotic socialism and helped Ronald Reagan bring an end to the Evil Empire and freedom to the enslaved peoples of Eastern Europe.
But she should also be remembered as a proud friend of the State of Israel, if by no means an uncritical one, and an ally of the Jewish people. She felt an instinctive affinity with Jewish enterprise and endurance, the sense of self-reliance and community. She would write in her memoirs: “I have enormous admiration for the Jewish people, inside or outside Israel. There have always been Jewish members of my staff and indeed my Cabinet. In fact I just wanted a Cabinet of clever, energetic people — and frequently that turned out to be the same thing.”
Her first encounter with a Jew was perhaps the most impactful. As a young girl growing up in the Lincolnshire market town of Grantham, the rise of Nazism in Europe was an abstract evil until the arrival of Edith Muhlbauer, a 17-year-old refugee who came to live with Thatcher’s family after escaping Nazi-annexed Austria. Muhlbauer told the young Margaret that Jews were made to scrub the streets in Austria. It was an image the future prime minister was never able to forget.
When she was elected Conservative leader in 1975, Thatcher took charge of a party that, despite having provided Britain with its only Jewish prime minister thus far, still harboured a strain of country-house antisemitism. Thatcher was contemptuous of her predecessor Ted Heath’s attempts to curry favor with the Arab states during the Yom Kippur war and later said she had followed the news from the battlefront “hour by hour”.
Her Finchley constituency was home to a significant Jewish population and she was acutely aware of the concerns and aspirations of British Jews. As prime minister, she elevated Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits to the House of Lords, making him the first rabbi to become a Peer of the Realm, and the two developed a great friendship of shared political and social viewpoints.
Another first was her May 1986 visit to Israel, the first ever by a British prime minister. The visit strengthened her warm relations with Shimon Peres and introduced her to the “eloquent and respected” Abba Eban but she found little common ground with Yitzhak Rabin, still a hawkish defense minister in his pre-Oslo days, and Yitzhak Shamir, whom she described as “a hard man, though undoubtedly a man of principle”.
Her relationship with Menachem Begin was notoriously frosty. She could never forgive the former Irgun commander for ordering the execution of British soldiers and the bombing of the King David Hotel during the pre-state struggle. The Iron Lady also found the Likudnik obdurate and impractical and deemed his policy of building settlements in Judea and Samaria “absurd”. (Thatcher, a patriotic ideologue for whom compromise was weakness, was more like Begin than she realized or cared to admit.)
“Israel must never be expected to jeopardize her security,” she maintained. “‘Land for peace’ must also bring peace.” Yet, as a friend of Israel who unreservedly condemned PLO terrorism and Arab rejectionism, she felt she could be candid with Israeli ministers, warning them against missing chances to reach an agreement with the Palestinians. She insisted “there could be no lasting peace without a solution of the Palestinian problem”, adding that “the miserable conditions under which Arabs on the West Bank and in Gaza were having to live only made things worse”.
(Her empathy towards what she called “the plight of landless and stateless Palestinians” didn’t win her a single friend on the British Left; some things are even more important to the English intelligentsia than Palestine.)
Thatcher was under-appreciated as a strategist but after leaving Downing Street she authored a book on statecraft that underscored her keen grasp of the geopolitics of the Middle East. Writing in 1995, she foresaw the rise of Islamist terrorism, “a threat approaching the gravity of the Cold War”, and of a belligerent nuclear Iran, “which has acquired — and continues to acquire — weapons of mass destruction… It has moved into nuclear research. It has close links with terrorist organizations and seems to feel no inhibitions about intervening to achieve its objectives…” Few politicians can claim such clear-eyed prescience.
Margaret Thatcher understood the moral case for Israel and appreciated the pivotal role of the Jewish people, their Book, and their state in the history of Western civilization. She was, as Prime Minister Netanyahu has said, “a staunch friend of Israel, a great supporter of the Jewish people”. This is how she should be remembered in Israel, as a pioneer Tory Zionist and a straight-talking mensch.
Originally published in the Times of Israel.