Her bond with Lord Jakobovits was profound — and it helped save shechita
Baroness Thatcher with Lord Jakobovits
Much has been written of the special bond between Baroness Thatcher and Lord Jakobovits.
His discretion and irritation at tittle tattle meant that he would never talk publicly about the true depth of their relationship. He believed that their private discussions should remain just that.
On his passing in 1999, his wife Amelie took a similar approach when she became the protector of the relationship. So as the fourth player in that period, it is left to me to relate the reality of the bond between them.
In 1982 I joined the office of the Chief Rabbi, first as an executive officer and later as executive director. Mrs Thatcher loomed large.
Chief Rabbi Jakobovits first met the MP for Finchley in the 1970s but it was her elevation to Education Minister in the Heath government that brought them close. He once remarked to her that with her responsibility for the education of our children, she was truly Secretary for Defence — a comment she would repeat time and again.
They were not friends in the usual sense. And he was not a Conservative, as some media commentators would have you believe. Their relationship was one of two conviction leaders whose sense of public service was paramount.
He enjoyed the common sense of her politics and her belief in herself, and she enjoyed his.
When the Archbishop of Canterbury published his Faith in the City report, it was widely taken as an attack on Thatcherism. Lord Jakobovits then published his response, From Doom to Hope, pointing out that the Jewish community had started with very little and grown successful simply by working hard. It was seen as an endorsement of her philosophy. The media then began to portray them as political soul mates.
In truth, Lord Jakobovits had little time for party politics. His bond with her was intellectual. She would seek his opinion on a range of subjects, from nuclear disarmament to the conflict in Northern Ireland.
But when the Prime Minister recommended that the Chief Rabbi be ennobled, it was left to me to explain to the Conservative Chief Whip that Lord Jakobovits would sit as a cross-bencher. He spoke against the Conservatives on the settling of refugees and health service reforms.
Despite that, the bond flourished.
When shechita came under attack in the late 1980s, Dayan Berger and I went to see the Agriculture Minister, John Gummer. He wanted to help us but was under pressure from animal welfare groups. He suggested that the matter would only be resolved if the Chief Rabbi approached the Prime Minister.
Lord Jakobovits was hesitant, reluctant to circumvent the formal process. But so serious was the situation that he recognised that his relationship with the PM was the only card left to play. In a private meeting in her flat above Number 10, a deal was hatched which secured shechita. The PM’s clear statement of support has been something successfully won from every successor.
I remember one dinner at Hamilton Terrace, the Chief Rabbi’s residence. The guests included Jewish Lords, Ladies and philanthropists. You could hear a pin drop as the PM entered, such was her extraordinary charisma.
She turned to Lord Jakobovits and said: “Why has everyone gone so quiet? Are they expecting the Queen?”
When Immanuel died and the British Friends of Bar Ilan honoured him with the building of a medical ethics centre, and Amelie with a doctorate, Baroness Thatcher and Sir Denis were the guests of honour. My wife and I had the honour of escorting the Thatchers and at one point she turned to me and said: “You must have had the best job in the world… He was my friend — I relied on him and miss him so”.
After Sir Denis’s passing, Amelie did what she did best. She made a sad person smile, and the regular lunches at Chester Terrace became more frequent. Two great women had lost two great men and each showed friendship and support for each other.
Baroness Thatcher was in awe of Lord Jakobovits’s passion for Jewish education and Jewish schools. He taught her why Jewish education is the security of our people, and why the bond between Jews of the diaspora and the state of Israel is so vital to our future. And he nurtured a friendship that brought great pride and benefit to our community.