Thatcher and the Jews
Margaret Thatcher was a staunch defender of Jewish causes and a supporter of Israel in her political career, unlike most Tory politicians before her
When asked about her most meaningful accomplishment, Margaret Thatcher, now embodied by Meryl Streep in the biopic Iron Lady, did not typically mention serving in the British government, defeating the Argentine invasion of the Falklands, taming runaway inflation, or toppling the Soviet Union. The woman who reshaped British politics and served as prime minister from 1979 to 1990 often said that her greatest accomplishment was helping save a young Austrian girl from the Nazis.
In 1938, Edith Muhlbauer, a 17-year-old Jewish girl, wrote to Muriel Roberts, Edith’s pen pal and the future prime minister’s older sister, asking if the Roberts family might help her escape Hitler’s Austria. The Nazis had begun rounding up the first of Vienna’s Jews after the Anschluss, and Edith and her family worried she might be next. Alfred Roberts, Margaret and Muriel’s father, was a small-town grocer; the family had neither the time nor the money to take Edith in. So Margaret, then 12, and Muriel, 17, set about raising funds and persuading the local Rotary club to help.
Edith stayed with more than a dozen Rotary families, including the Robertses, for the next two years, until she could move to join relatives in South America. Edith bunked in Margaret’s room, and she left an impression. “She was 17, tall, beautiful, evidently from a well-to-do family,” Thatcher later wrote in her memoir. But most important, “[s]he 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.” For Thatcher, who believed in meaningful work, this was as much a waste as it was an outrage. Had the Roberts family not intervened, Edith recalled years later, “I would have stayed in Vienna and they would have killed me.” Thatcher never forgot the lesson: “Never hesitate to do whatever you can, for you may save a life,” she told audiences in 1995 after Edith had been located, alive and well, in Brazil.
Other British politicians and their families housed Jews during the war, but none seems to have been profoundly affected by it as Thatcher was. Harold Macmillan, a Thatcher foe and England’s prime minister from 1957 to 1963, provided a home for Jewish refugees on his estate, but his relations with Jews were always frosty, the mark of a genuflecting anti-Semitism common among the Tory grandees.
During the controversial Versailles peace talks that ended World War I, Macmillan wrote to a friend that the government of Prime Minister Lloyd George was not “really popular, except with the International Jew,” the mythic entity thought to be behind all of Europe’s troubles and made famous by Henry Ford’s eponymously titled book. Macmillan often made snide jokes about Jews and Jewish politicians, derisively calling Leslie Hore-Belisha, a Liberal member of Parliament and a critic of appeasement in the years before World War II, “Horeb Elisha,” a jabbing reference to Mount Horeb, where the Ten Commandments were handed down to Moses. Viscount Cranborne, a Tory member of Parliament and a Foreign Office official in the 1930s, undermined attempts to ease the entry of Jews into Britain or Palestine, shutting out those other would-be Ediths from finding safety under the British Union Jack. And together, Cranborne and Macmillan were among the Tory parliamentarians who forced Hore-Belish out of the government in the early 1940s for allegedly conspiring to force Britain into a war on behalf of the Jews on the mainland.
Thatcher, by contrast, had no patience for anti-Semitism or for those who countenanced it. “I simply did not understand anti-semitism myself,” Thatcher confessed in her memoirs. Indeed, she found “some of [her] closest political friends and associates among Jews.” Unique among British politicians, she was unusually free of even “the faintest trace of anti-Semitism in her make-up,” wrote Nigel Lawson, her chancellor of the Exchequer, in 1992. Lawson knew of what he spoke. Alan Clark, a senior Tory politician, wrote in his diaries that some of the old guard, himself included, thought Lawson could not, “as a Jew,” be offered the position of foreign secretary. Lawson’s “Jewish parentage was disqualification enough,” the Sunday Telegraph wrote in 1988, without a hint of shame. Rumors and speculation persisted well into the 1990s about why this or that Jewish member of Parliament couldn’t be made leader of the Conservative Party.
Early on in her career—even before she entered politics—Thatcher had worked alongside Jews as a chemist at J. Lyons and Co., a Jewish-owned company. (She had graduated from Oxford in 1947 with a degree in chemistry.) After quitting chemistry, she became a barrister and grew increasingly involved in politics. She ran for office in some of the more conservative districts and lost each time. Thatcher finally won when she ran in Finchley, a safe Tory seat in a north London borough. Finally she had found her constituents: middle-class, entrepreneurial, Jewish suburbanites. She particularly loved the way her new constituents took care of one another, rather than looking to the state: “In the thirty-three years that I represented [Finchley],” she later wrote, “I never had a Jew come in poverty and desperation to one of my [town meetings],” and she often wished that Christians “would take closer note of the Jewish emphasis on self-help and acceptance of personal responsibility.” She was a founding member of the Anglo-Israel Friendship League of Finchley and a member of the Conservative Friends of Israel. Aghast that a golf club in her district consistently barred Jews from becoming members, she publicly protested against it. She even joined in the singing of the Israeli national anthem in 1975 at Finchley.
The Jews of Finchley were “her people,” Thatcher used to say—certainly much more so than the wealthy land barons that dominated her party.
When Thatcher became leader of the opposition in 1975, it was suggested that her closeness with British Jews might imperil the country’s foreign policy. Official correspondence released in 2005 shows the unease with which bureaucrats at the Foreign Office treated Thatcher’s affiliations in the run-up to her election as prime minister in 1979. Michael Tait, an official at the British embassy in Jordan, worried that Thatcher might be too readily seen as a “prisoner of the Zionists” unless she severed her official ties with pro-Jewish groups. Tait even suggested that Thatcher give up her beloved Finchley constituency for Westminster, a less Jewish district, and distance herself from the “pro-Israel MPs” that might make Middle East peace impossible. In the end, Thatcher reluctantly agreed to quit the Jewish groups she belonged to, but she kept her district and her relationships with pro-Israel parliamentarians.
With the release of an Israeli arrested on bogus charges in the Republic of Georgia, the two U.S. allies can get back to building a close relationship