In the 1930s, a girl called Margaret Roberts (later Thatcher) was growing up in Grantham, Lincolnshire. Margaret’s big sister Muriel had an Austrian Jewish pen-friend called Edith. When Hitler’s German army occupied Austria, Edith’s worried father asked Margaret and Muriel’s parents if the Roberts family would look after his daughter.
They agreed. Young Edith escaped the tightening grip of the Nazis and went to Grantham to stay with the Roberts. Margaret remembers Edith and the accounts she gave of her life. “She told us what it was like to live as a Jew under an anti-Semitic regime. One thing Edith reported particularly stuck in my mind: the Jews, she said, were being made to scrub the streets.” (Edith eventually moved to build a new life in South America.)
Later, as Thatcher rose to the leadership of the Conservative Party, she continued to earn a reputation as a friend of the Jewish people. She was a popular MP among her constituents in Finchley (which had a high Jewish population) and was a member of the Anglo-Israel Friendship League of Finchley and the Conservative Friends of Israel. She joined in the singing of Hatikvah at a local event in 1975.
When she took the leadership of the party, Foreign Office mandarins feared her Jewish connections and support for Israel would see her viewed as “a prisoner of the Zionists” by the Arab world. Once PM, her cabinets and behind-the-scenes teams often included many Jewish politicians, prompting Harold Macmillan to quip that she had “more Estonians than Etonians”. (Not the most sensitive of punchlines, but it should be noted that Macmillan too had given shelter to Jewish refugees in the 1930s and 40s.)
Thatcher became the first serving British Prime Minister to visit Israel when she spent three days there in May 1986. (She had visited twice prior to becoming PM.) While respecting her for her symbolic trip, I find the fact it took Britain nearly 40 years to send a serving PM to Israel astonishing.
It was not an entirely rosy relationship between Thatcher and Israel. She described Israel’s bombing of the Iraqi nuclear plant in 1981 as “a grave breach of international law” and a “matter of great grief”. (Then US President Ronald Reagan also condemned it incidentally – so much for the American/Israel conspiracy.)
In 1987 she had a less than harmonious dawn summit with Yitzhak Rabin, which he later described as “the shortest breakfast meeting he ever had”. (Her ‘Iron Lady’ tag is thought to have been inherited from Israeli PM Golda Meir.) She also imposed an arms embargo on Israel during the Lebanon war.
However, the number of Jewish Conservative MPs rose under her reign, and dwarfed the number on the Labour benches. As PM, Thatcher had a very healthy relationship with the then Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits. One of my favourite political books is Sir Martin Gilbert’s Churchill And The Jews. I wonder if a similar tone could one day be written about Thatcher’s relationship with the Chosen People?