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
Once she became prime minister, Thatcher appointed a government of outsiders. “The thing about Margaret’s Cabinet,” Macmillan would later say, “is that it includes more Old Estonians than it does Old Etonians.” (Eton, the famous prep school, required that its students’ fathers be British by birth, so as to keep out the Jews.) British politics had always been a club for genteel gentiles; Thatcher wanted to make it a meritocracy.
Thatcher appointed whomever she liked to positions in her government, whatever their religious or family background. Chaim Bermant, the Anglo-Jewish writer, probably went too far when he said Thatcher has “an almost mystical faith in Jewish abilities,” but he wasn’t completely off the mark. In addition to Nigel Lawson, she appointed Victor Rothschild as her security adviser, Malcolm Rifkind to be secretary of state for Scotland, David Young as minister without portfolio, and Leon Brittan to be trade and industry secretary. David Wolfson, nephew of Sir Isaac Wolfson, president of Great Universal Stores, Europe’s biggest mail-order company, served as Thatcher’s chief of staff. Her policies were powered by two men—Keith Joseph, a member of Parliament many thought would one day be the first prime minister who was a practicing Jew, and Alfred Sherman, a former communist turned free-market thinker.
With Thatcher, Joseph and Sherman formed the Centre for Policy Studies in 1974 to inject classical liberal ideas into Britain’s Conservative Party. Joseph, son of one of the wealthiest families in Britain, wanted to “fundamentally affect a political generation’s way of thinking.” It wasn’t enough to win elections, he believed; there had to be a change in how people thought of politics. He took his cue from his ideological nemesis, the Fabian Socialists, a group of British intellectuals who wanted to make Britain a socialist country through gradual change. Joseph would copy the Fabians’ style by writing policy papers, giving speeches, and writing to famous Brits to try to change public opinion. One of those forays became a co-written book, Equality, published in 1979, which argued that equality of opportunity “requires that no external barrier shall prevent an individual from exploiting his talents. No laws shall permit some men to do what is forbidden by others.” It was Thatcherite to the core.
Thatcher’s philo-Semitism went beyond the people she appointed to her government; it had clear political implications as well. She made Jewish causes her own, including by easing the restrictions on prosecuting Nazi war criminals living in Britain and pleading the cause of the Soviet Union’s refuseniks. She boasted that she once made Soviet officials “nervous” by repeatedly bringing up the refuseniks’ plight during a single nine-hour meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev, “The Soviets had to know that every time we met their treatment of the refuseniks would be thrown back at them,” she explained in her book The Downing Street Years. Thatcher also worked to end the British government’s support for the Arab boycott of Israel. During the Yom Kippur War of 1973, Thatcher criticized Tory Prime Minister Ted Heath’s refusal to supply Israel with military parts or even allow American planes to supply Israel from British airfields. In 1986, Thatcher became the first British prime minister to visit Israel, having previously visited twice as a member of parliament.
Yet despite her support for Israel, and though she rejected the stridently pro-PLO stance of some members of her government, she believed Israel needed to trade land for peace, wishing in her memoirs that the “Israeli emphasis on the human rights of the Russian refuseniks was matched by proper appreciation of the plight of the landless and stateless Palestinians.” She also condemned Israel’s bombing of Osirak, Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor, in 1981. “[The Osirak attack] represents a grave breach of international law,” she said in an interview with London’s Jewish Chronicle in 1981. Israel’s bombing of another country could lead to “international anarchy.”
In fairness, Thatcher wasn’t alone in this position. Jeanne Kirkpatrick, the U.S. ambassador to United Nations at the time, compared Israel’s bombing of the nuclear reactor to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The U.N. Security Council unanimously condemned the raid. “Just because a country is trying to manufacture energy from nuclear sources, it must not be believe that she is doing something totally wrong,” Thatcher said in the House of Commons. Iraq’s facility, she noted, had just been inspected and so it was particularly unhelpful for Israel to have attacked. Reagan agreed—at least, officially. “Technically,” Reagan wrote years later, “Israel had violated an agreement not to use U.S.-made weapons for offensive purposes, and some cabinet members wanted me to lean hard on Israel because it had broken this pledge … but I sympathized with [Israeli Prime Minister Menachem] Begin’s motivations and privately believed we should give him the benefit of the doubt.”
That Thatcher did not give Israel the benefit of the doubt is disconcerting, though she made good by later calling for the liberation of Kuwait and eventually the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. But in this Thatcher ought not to have let the mandarins in the Foreign Office get the better of her judgment: She should have trusted her philo-Semitic instincts.
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