Rescuing a refugee was her ‘great achievement’
Margaret Thatcher was arguably the most philosemitic Prime Minister this country has ever had. The daughter of a Grantham grocer who was also a Methodist lay preacher, her strict religious upbringing instilled in her a deep respect for the Jewish people.
She admired the determination of Jewish immigrants to Britain to become British while retaining a distinctive ethnic identity. She abhorred anti-Jewish prejudice. She talked approvingly of the Jewish capacity for innovation and hard work, and of the success of British Jews in improving themselves economically without the help of a welfare state. She liked the company of Jews and she surrounded herself with Jewish advisers.
This deep reverence for Jews was cemented when she became Member of Parliament for Finchley — the only constituency she ever represented in the Commons, from 1959–92. But as a youngster in 1938 she had had to share her bedroom with an Austrian Jewish refugee, Edith Muhlbauer. Thatcher (then aged 12) had helped raise the money that made it possible for Edith to come to the UK, and she later insisted that it was this act of rescue, rather than any of the great national and international achievements of her political career, that constituted her greatest accomplishment — saving a Jew from the Nazis.
It is often forgotten that Thatcher was not only the first woman to become British Prime Minister. She was also the first scientist, having read chemistry at Oxford before turning to law. This scientific background led to her employment, as a chemist, in J Lyons & Co — a Jewish-owned firm in which she worked alongside other Jews.
So having to meet and make friends with the considerable Jewish electorate of Finchley held no terrors for her.
During the 1950s there had been a series of scandals in north-west London involving Tory-party dominated sports clubs that either limited the number of Jewish members or excluded them entirely. Thatcher would have none of this. She ordered a purge of the local Tory party leadership. She made it quite clear that the self-made, mutually supportive Jewish suburbanites of Finchley were her kind of people.
“In the 33 years that I represented [Finchley],” she later wrote, “I never had a Jew come in poverty and desperation to one of my [constituency meetings].”
She was a founding member of Finchley’s Anglo-Israel Friendship League, and famously joined in singing the Hatikvah at Finchley in 1975.
It is also often forgotten now how very problematic had been the history of the Jewish relationship with the Conservative Party when Thatcher inherited the Finchley seat. She changed all that too. She welcomed Jews into the party and as Leader of the Opposition from 1975, and as Prime Minister four years later, she ostentatiously promoted Jews to senior advisory and ministerial positions.
Her friendship with Keith Joseph was of pivotal importance here. Following the Tory defeat in 1974 she and Joseph set up the Centre for Policy Studies, a think-tank charged with the task of developing a new, free-market Conservatism. At its head was another Jew — Alfred Sherman, the Hackney politician who had fought for the Communists in the Spanish Civil War but later embarked on a political journey that ended with his becoming speech-writer to both Joseph and Thatcher. To this trio — Thatcher, Joseph and Sherman — should be attributed a primary responsibility for rolling back decades of socialism that had underpinned the British state since the end of the Second World War.
But Joseph was far from being the only Jew in her Cabinet: at one time it included no fewer than five Jews (Keith Joseph, Nigel Lawson, Leon Brittan, Malcolm Rifkind and David Young) — a record which has never been equalled.
And when Thatcherite social policies came under attack from the bishops of the Church of England, Thatcher had no hesitation in putting into the House of Lords her friend and admirer, the then Chief Rabbi, Immanuel Jakobovits — the one cleric on whom she could rely to savage the welfare dependency culture which she and he agreed was an unmitigated evil.
Thatcher was a staunch supporter of Soviet Jewry and a firm friend of Israel, though not an uncritical one. But as to her basic support for Israel’s right to exist, and to flourish as a Jewish state, there was never any doubt.
Her death will be widely mourned in the UK. She deserves to be mourned in Israel, and throughout the Jewish world.