Baroness Margaret Thatcher, friend of Israel, passes on Yom Hashoah
Posted by Dr. Fay on April 8, 2013
Baroness Margaret Thatcher, champion of Israel, died today on Holocaust Remembrance Day. Adam Chandler at the Tablet notes that Baroness Thatcher’s proudest moment was when she helped a young woman escape the Holocaust.
Fortunately for us, history sometimes dovetails nicely and the remembrances of Thatcher–who held many honorifics as a long-serving prime minister and woman pioneer in British politics–can boast Thatcher’s sensitivity toward and fidelity to the important Jewish causes of her era. Leading this, I’d like to point back to Charles Johnson’s thorough exploration of Thatcher’s relationship with the Jews, written in late December of 2011.
Johnson starts with what Thatcher often said was her greatest accomplishment, which was not her work in helping to topple the Soviet Union or being the first British woman to hold the post of prime minister, but rather, was her work as a child to save a Jewish teenage in Austria from the grasp of Hitler’s terror.
In 1938, Edith Muhlbauer, a 17-year-old Jewish girl, wrote to Muriel Roberts, Edith’s pen pal and the future prime minister’s [Margaret Thatcher] 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.
Throughout Thatcher’s life, this commitment never waned. Divisive as she was, her energetic work to supplant British support for the Arab boycott of Israel, her hectoring of Soviet Union officials about the treatment of Jewish refuseniks, her inclusion of Jewish leaders in her cabinet (to the frustration of some), and her landmark visit to Israel–the first by a sitting British prime minister–will likely keep her as a cherished figure in the collective Jewish memory for a long time to come.
Here are additional excerpts from the “Thatcher and the Jews” article cited by Adam Chandler.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Yom Hashoah, observance of which started at sunset last evening, will continue until sunset tonight. Instagram Blog has set up a feed for user pictures here with the text below and has links to photos with the hashtag #YomHaShoah and a Vad Yashem page with photos.
Yom HaShoah is a national holiday in Israel, commemorated by speeches by the President and Prime Minister at Yad Vashem, the lighting of six torches by Holocaust survivors, prayers by the chief rabbis and two minutes of silence across the nation. While other countries have their own Holocaust days as well, many Jews around the world also observe the day at home and at important historical sites.