A Woman of Worth?

The Tory objective seems to be and is probably seen by most of them, including Mrs Thatcher, as the utopia of economic neo-liberalism: every man an entrepreneur, the triumph of the unrestricted market and the dismantling of state interference in the economy and the affairs of the private citizen. In short the anarchism of the lower middle classes.” (Out of the Wilderness by Eric Hobsbawm, 1987)

Although dissenting from the final, barbed, sentence, many British Jews would warm to such a statement. Mrs Thatcher’s exhortations to social individualism produce a resonant acknowledgement amongst the achievers in our community. If somewhat lukewarm in 1979, large sections of Anglo-Jewry appear now—in the absence of a credible alternative—to have learned to love the Lady as she prepares for her second decade in power. For some at least, truly an eshet chayil—a woman of worth.

The Prime Minister and her hands-on conservatives are the products of post-war social mobility. Like many Jews, they are successful and self-made people. A political party no longer dominated by unworldly aristos and hard-nosed anti-Semites, today’s Tory is the very model of a modern minor businessman. Stripped of its anti-Jewish colouring, the Conservative party of the eighties, representing the wrests of the nouveaux riches, is a seemingly natural home for many British Jews. Geoffrey Alderman has shown that a majority of Jews vote Conservative in regions of Jewish concentration in London, but little is known about such voting patterns in areas where unemployment is a fact of life. In all likelihood, Jews, like non-Jews, vote according to their socio-economic status and since a majority are owner-occupiers, they have drifted the political right.

Mrs Thatcher herself hails from a Methodist background in which her father, Alderman Roberts, encouraged a Victorian passion for communal service, solid education and plain hard work. Unlike her Jewish contemporaries, Mrs Thatcher’s homespun and humourless exposition of thriftiness does not emanate from the depths of poverty and disadvantage, but from self-imposed sparseness as a rule of life. Fifty years ago, the Roberts household had already ascended the social ladder to the safety of the lower middle class. The trauma of the great struggles of the thirties for a better life, the attraction of communism, the hatred of fascism—the turmoil which affected a whole generation of Jews—never reached Grantham and made no impact on Mrs Thatcher during her formative years. Yet for so many Jews who, through social deprivation, were forced to fight their way up       often without elementary education—Mrs Thatcher’s view of the world, irreverent and anti-establishment, has great appeal:

Fashionable London with its outposts in the older universities and cultural quangos and moribund public bodies of every description, stood for values which she came to loathe. They were, as she saw them, anti-business, anti-merit and even anti-British. So for her, too, there was a strong class element to her analysis: which was not so much an analysis, more a collection of instinctive feelings arranged around her favourite self-image, that of the outsider. (One of Us by Hugo Young, 1988)

Like many Jews, Mrs Thatcher sees herself as an outsider. “Is he one of us?” is a question open to both Thatcherite and Jewish interpretations. A Cromwellian puritan heading a party of cavaliers: in her own words, “I am the rebel head of an establishment government”. And it is this radical sense of standing outside the accepted political framework that has attracted many Jews to her standard. Whilst some Jews praise conservatism because it eschews traditional immutable values, other Jews cast Thatcherism in a revolutionary mould as a credo of creating change within society. Not surprisingly a number of former socialists are to be located in the ranks of the faithful.

If Mrs Thatcher is lauded by Jewish business people, the same cannot be said for those within Anglo-Jewry whose lives are not wedded to the world of finance and commerce. Hagiographic accounts relate that two Jews, Sir Keith Joseph and Sir Alfred Sherman, one a second generation baronet, the other a former Communist, came together to act as ideological midwives at the birth of Thatcherism. Housed in right-wing think tanks, they engaged a wide range of thinkers in the construction of authentic conservatism. It is therefore significant that intellectuals and academics have been involved with this administration to a much greater degree than with previous governments. Yet despite winning the economic argument—at least in terms of public relations—Mrs Thatcher has been unable to gain either acceptability or respectability from the British intelligentsia. In his highly acclaimed book, Hugo Young remarks that

universities could not show a profit, prove they were cost effective, demonstrate a ruthless employment policy penalizing inferior work or argue the merits of Sanskrit and Philosophy as contributors to the gross national product. . . . Margaret Thatcher was no friend of their world, being variously a philistine, a better friend of Mammon than of God, an anti-intellectual.

Nevertheless Mrs Thatcher within her ideological sphere exhibits a profound intellectual curiosity and is drawn to Jews especially as the people of the idea—and yet she is rebuffed and spurned by the world of thinkers. Oxford even voted not to bestow an honorary degree upon her as had been the custom for all other previous holders of her office. Last year, Sir Peter Hall, the Director of the National Theatre estimated that “well over 90 per cent of the people in the performing arts, education and the creative world are against her”.

Renown for her philosemitism, Mrs Thatcher has never felt at ease with the problems of the ethnic minorities. In 1968 she voted against the Race Relations Act. In 1978 she spoke about the possibility of four million Blacks living in Britain by the end of the century and being “swamped by people of a different culture”. In 1981 she characterized the Brixton riot as a public disorder rather than the result of social malaise. And this year, with the protective shield of the Ayatollah’s death threat in front of them, the government utilized the Rushdie affair to insist on the acculturation of the Muslim community. And yet, for Mrs Thatcher, the Jews are not “one of them”, they are not an ethnic minority, not British Jews but loyal Jewish Britons, co-religionists of the Jewish faith. This classification has been assiduously cultivated by many a Jewish leader and especially the Chief Rabbi who proclaimed that British Jews had never requested a multi-ethnic society: “we were quite content for Britain to remain ‘ethnocentrically’ British”. (From Doom to Hope, 1986) For some Jews, such an endorsement contains the seeds of anglicisation and eventual assimilation, but for Mrs Thatcher, however, it is a vindication of her ideological struggle.

In his new book, London Jewry and London Polities 1889-1986, Geoffrey Alderman argues that Mrs Thatcher has pursued a foreign policy “more pro-Jewish than that of any of her predecessors since David Lloyd George”. Few Jewish socialists could disagree with that. She has shown herself to be a tireless defender of human rights in the USSR and always carries a list of refuseniks in her handbag ready to be handed to the nearest Soviet representative. Yet her support for Soviet Jews stems from her fundamentalist detestation of Marxism. Significantly, she is ideologically closer to the orthodox Christianity and Russian nationalism of Alexander Solzhenitsyn than the liberalism of the Western-orientated Andrei Sakharov. Despite the multitude of ideological differences amongst the dissidents in the pre-perestroika era and the fact that the aim of Soviet Jews was simply to emigrate and not to change the political system of the USSR, Mrs Thatcher’s approach has been a reductionist one  in simply merging the lot within the zeal of an anti-Communist crusade.

Her attitude towards Israel is much more complex. Whilst unable psychologically to embrace Arafat, a man with a terrorist past, or to upset too many of her Jewish supporters by overt condemnation of the Israeli government, Mrs Thatcher adopts a softly, softly approach on the Palestinian problem. Ironically, in Israeli terms, she would be a dove—a wet, closer to the urbane Mr Peres than to the unyielding Mr Shamir. At the beginning of the intifada, she remarked that “the Palestinians have a grievance”, yet the hard words are left to the Foreign Office. Little is mentioned about the embargo of arms for Israel whilst a fifteen billion pound deal is enacted with Saudi Arabia.

Many may well believe that Mrs Thatcher is good for the Jews—but is her philosophy rooted in Jewish tradition as she seems to imply?

This can only be answered partly by asking another question. Do the Jews believe in egalitarianism even as a distant goal or in a benevolent individualism? Jewish teaching propagates the idea that both options must exist in a symbiotic relationship; that a Jew’s perception that all human beings arc neither superior nor inferior to him is balanced by the objective fact that this is not the case in real life. Mrs Thatcher, herself, believes that egalitarianism took root in the West because of a mistaken interpretation of Christian doctrine. Jewish tradition also accepts that the acquisition of great wealth is not a bad thing as long as it is used wisely and generously for the implementation of good works and tsedakah. But it would certainly challenge the laissez-faire philosophy of “everyone for themselves”—an inference implicit in Mrs Thatcher’s remark earlier this year that “there is no such thing as society; there are individual men and women and there are families”.

Perhaps therein lies the difference. Traditionally, Judaism did not seek to suppress ambition but neither did it give it free rein. It insists that individual effort should benefit the collective rather than atomize it. The classical Jewish understanding of individualism proclaims the interdependence of all members of the community and that the contribution of each and every individual member is an indispensable but manifest part of the whole. Whilst capitalism is certainly sanctioned in Jewish tradition and socialist principles are not an obligation, rabbinical authorities have supported social experiments such as the religious kibbutz movement in Israel as a channel towards the realization of the ideal of justice in society. Many observant Jews believe that the Jewish people should live in accordance with the social laws contained in the Torah and that this should form the basis for the improvement of society. “We repudiated both the capitalist system and its corollary, the class struggle, and maintained that reform should not be based on principles of philanthropy but on a fundamental change in the structure of human society.” (The Religious Kibbutz Movement, Moshe Unna, 1957)

Such a sentiment is reinforced by the need to understand Jewish history—that it is just as important not to forget where we have come from as to know where we are going. It is our relationship with the past and the experience of Jewish history that is the basis of a Jewish commitment to liberalism and to efforts to create that ideal of justice in society. It is for this reason that there are numerous Jews who, despite the blessing of prosperity, refuse to identify with Thatcherism or indeed to vote Republican in the United States. The unquestioning acceptance of the necessity for the human wreckage of the last decade simply because some people arc neither achievers nor ambitious is, for many Jews, incompatible with Jewish teachings. To dissent from this acceptance is not simply a democratic right but, for some, a covenantal obligation.

As she has promised us, Mrs Thatcher, in determined form, will go on and on. For most Jews, the approving cry will be “ad mea v’esreem” (“until 120 years of age”). But, for a considerable few, the image of the prophet who, with meddlesome obstinacy, passionately defends the weak and dispossessed will remain the true symbol of Jewish behaviour.

Jewish Quarterly Summer 1989



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