In her fury, I saw values alien to us
Campaigning in Finchley and Golders Green in 2001 (Photo: Sidney Harris)
Prior to her visit to meet the rising Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, in 1984, I was asked to join a delegation in Finchley to meet Margaret Thatcher. I hesitated because I was no fan and believed her policies to be destructive and divisive. Yet my family convinced me that I should participate because of my long involvement with the Soviet Jewry campaign.
Ushered into her room at the Finchley constituency offices, I was surprised to see that she was shorter, slighter and more elderly than I had anticipated. Not the towering colossus of my imagination.
Despite my reluctance to be there, the conversation developed into a one-to-one dialogue. She was equally as strident in this private meeting as she was in public. When I asked her what Britain was doing to help locate the Swedish diplomat, Raoul Wallenberg, the saviour of thousands of Jews in Nazi-occupied Hungary who had disappeared into Stalin’s Gulag, she inexplicably exploded in a blazing fury.
This surreal exchange went on for nearly an hour. It was like watching her on a television that could not be switched off. She was an impenetrable Iron Lady.
On a certain level she was well versed in the tribulations of the Jewish refuseniks. She was an impressive name-dropper and asked after Ida Nudel, Vladimir Slepak and Natan Sharansky. My nagging feeling at the time was that all this was superficial public relations to impress the local Jews.
Her concern at the meeting was not entirely motivated by a goodwill towards Soviet Jews, but centrally by a hatred of Marxism and guided solely by what she deemed to be in the national interests of this country. She preferred full-bloodied anti-Communism to discussion about human rights.
The meeting ended as suddenly as it had begun. The calm after the storm.For myself, she was, to use her own phrase, “someone I could do business with”, but nothing more. I rejected the offer to have my photograph taken with her.
Many in Jewish leadership depicted Mrs Thatcher as a latter-day eshet chayil, a woman of worth. This meeting confirmed for me that her values were inimical to Jewish tradition. Now she belongs to history, but her legacy will continue to divide Jews for generations to come.
Colin Shindler is Pears Senior Research Fellow in Israel Studies at SOAS and author of ‘A History of Modern Israel’, published by Cambridge University Press