The past 72 hours have highlighted how bitterly Britain’s longest-serving premier of modern times divided opinion.
Margaret Thatcher boosted free markets, slashed big government, saved the Falkland Islands, helped end the cold war and enhanced Britain’s flagging international reputation. She also caused strikes and riots, championed the spiteful poll tax, created an unemployment queue three million long, failed to condemn apartheid and devoted herself to the spurious notion that if the rich get richer, everyone benefits. Even at the acrimonious end of her premiership, the Iron Lady didn’t know the meaning of the word “compromise”.
Her thorny legacy is illustrated by the ambiguous results of this week’s YouGov poll in which 36 percent of Brits claim she made the country more equal and 49 percent more divided.
So the visceral hate her death provoked, from the Socialist Worker newspaper’s “Rejoice!” front page headline to the “tread down the dirt” tweet of ever-delightful MP George Galloway, is predictable if not, in these two instances, excusable.
But this week, British Jews seemed to speak with one voice. Margaret Thatcher was the woman who put Finchley – the constituency with the UK’s largest Jewish population – on the map. Indeed, she was the woman whose respect and admiration for Jewish values seemed to know no bounds. And she was the woman who has set the enduring tone for her party’s support for Israel.
For Thatcher, Finchley MP for 33 years, the constituency’s Jews were “her people”. According to government documents, when she became Conservative leader, she was urged by the Foreign Office to cut ties with the Jewish community by abandoning Finchley to placate Arab leaders. Notes taken by an official at the British embassy in Jordan state: “It is presumably in the national interest to do what we can to counter Arab fears and suspicions that the leader of HM opposition is already a prisoner of the Zionists.” Thatcher, naturally, was outraged by the mere thought and refused to budge.
She was a loud and profound voice of empathy for Israel in its right to self-determination and self-defence. While Secretary for Education in 1972, she revealed obvious delight at meeting that other Iron Lady, Golda Meir, by telling the Finchley Anglo-Israel Friendship League it had been “one tough nut visiting another tough nut!”. Fourteen years later she became the first British Prime Minister to make an official visit to Israel.
Until her health failed, Thatcher urged the world not to forget that “Israel is the only real democracy in the Middle East”. But, of course, she didn’t mince words when she felt Israel had misbehaved. In 1981, she roundly condemned the bombing of Iraqi’s Osirak nuclear reactor as “a grave breach of international law”.
Despite suffering a series of strokes in 2002, she addressed the Commonwealth Jewish Council, an organisation she helped establish and praised the “courage, duty and generosity” of “every Jew I have ever met” while collecting an award from Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Hospital.
Clearly, when it came to Britain’s Jewish community, the Iron lady was inclined to reveal her barely-seen softer side. Type the word “Jewish” into the Margaret Thatcher Foundation’s website search engine and you’ll unearth a goldmine of warm and witty speeches delivered to the community between 1959 and 1992. Each stands as a profound testament to the esteem she held Anglo-Jewry in during 33 tumultuous years in Westminster.
Loved, loathed, admired and reviled, Margaret Thatcher was Britain’s first superwoman. For good or bad, we may never see her like again.