Jewish Attitudes towards Thatcherism

MARGARET THATCHER’S current difficulties seem to herald the end of an era: three foreign secretaries within as many months; the exit of an experienced team from the uppermost echelons of government to the back benches and less important posts; the trouncing of the Tories in the European elections — the first defeat since she entered Downing Street in 1979; the ungrateful defection of the middle classes who are experiencing economic difficulties and the consequent advance of the Labour Party now some 10 points ahead in the opinion polls. Apocalypse soon, perhaps — the writing truly appears to be on the wall.

Yet this year was supposed to commemorate a special anniversary — her first decade in power. Although Downing Street tried to play down the anniversary in case people began to crystalize a verdict on the past 10 years, the British publishing industry took the opposite view. A wide range of books could be found in the bookshops of London on the persona of the prime minister. And virtually every book and every article mentioned her relationship with Jews and Judaism.

The most recent one to reach the bookshops, by the former Labour MP Leo Abse, is entitled Margaret, Daughter of Beatrice: A Politician’s Psycho-biography of Margaret Thatcher. Abse, who is Jewish, devotes an entire chapter to “Margaret Thatcher’s Jews” which literally bubbles over with vitriol and indignation aimed at the Anglo-Jewish establishment. Today’s Conservative Party represents the nouveaux riche and therefore is very attractive to those Anglo-Jews who have “made it.” The Conservatives of 1989 like many Jews in Britain are self-made people, the products of post-war social mobility. Unlike their predecessors of decades ago, today’s Tory is the very model of a modern minor businessman. The Jewish Tory feels at home in a party no longer dominated by unworldly aristos and hard-nosed anti-Semites which is also sympathetic to Israel.

Until recently there were numerous Jews in her cabinet and she evoked considerable support from

Anglo-Jewry’s business community. In turn, she preached her devotion to Judaic ideals and her deep respect for the chief rabbi, elevating him to the upper house as Lord Jakobovits.

Beneath all this idolatry, it is worth ‘examining why there has been an outpouring of so much symbiotic affection.

THATCHERISM emphasizes social individualism, an exhortation to achievers but of little comfort for those who are unable to compete or do not exhibit ambitions to “move ahead in life.” Thus for those Jews who through their own hard work have built up their businesses and their heirs who have inherited the fruits of their parents’ labour, there is a tendency to identify with the Conservatives. Thatcher herself comes from a Methodist background where her father encouraged a Victorian passion for communal service, solid education and hard work. Unlike the Jews, Thatcher’s family was already safely ensconced in a lower-middle-class niche some 50 years ago. Neither was she unduly affected by the traumatic events of the Thirties. The turmoil which affected a whole generation of Jews, the hypnotic attraction of Communism, the deep hatred of Fascism, were never a part of political endeavour in the rural English city of Grantham where she grew up.

Probably the best book on Thatcher this year is a huge tome by The Guardian’s political columnist, the insightful Hugo Young. In his book, One of Us, he comments that “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.”

“Is he one of us?” is a question which could apply equally well to Jews as to Thatcherites. And it is this concept of being a radical outside the accepted framework of the political establishment that appeals to many Jews. While there are those Jews who aspire to Conservatism because it expounds traditional immutable values, there are others who regard Thatcherism as a revolutionary force initiating change in society. Indeed, one of the intellectual progenitors of Thatcherism, Sir Alfred Sherman, first worshipped Stalin, then located Zionism before a final transition to becoming a doyen of the English New Right.

Yet if there is a resonance within Anglo-Jewry’s business people, those Jews engaged in the liberal professions, teachers, social workers, writers, profess no love for the Lady. Last year, the director of the National Theatre, Sir Peter Hall, estimated that “well over 90 per cent of the people in the performing arts, education and the creative world are against her.” Mirroring that section of British society, considerable numbers of Jews rejected Thatcherism because it encouraged the profit motive rather than the prophet motive, that it regarded those at the bottom of the socioeconomic pile simply as layabouts and scroungers as opposed to non-achievers. Naturally, the Jews tied it to the teachings of the Tora and to the historical Jewish experience. Judaism, it was claimed, insisted that individual effort should benefit the collective rather than atomize it and was thus at the opposite pole to Thatcherism.

Moreover, although she was undoubtedly philo-Semitic, from time to time her actions and pronouncements on race relations where black people were concerned rankled with many Jews whose memory was not so short. For example, in 1978, she spoke about immigration into Britain in terms of “being swamped by people of a different culture.” And this year, one of the by-products of the Salman Rushdie affair was the government’s insistence on the acculturation of the Moslem community. Thatcher regarded British Jews in a different light. Not so much British Jews as Jewish Britons well on the way to Anglicization — a view welcomed by many a Jewish leader.

THATCHER IS KNOWN warmly as a friend of Israel and she is lauded as such by Israeli politicians and Anglo-Jewish leaders alike.

Even so, her three foreign secretaries of 1989, Geoffrey Howe, John Major and now Douglas Hurd, were all lukewarm when it came to Israel’s predicaments. The hard words were always left to them. As a near victim of the IRA Brighton bombing, her aversion to terrorism is not cosmetic. Yet her personal position on the Israel-Palestine conflict would paradoxically place her in the peace camp in Israel. At the beginning of the intifada, she commented that the “Palestinians had a grievance.” Moreover, she didn’t regard Arafat’s declarations on the recognition of the Jewish State and a Cessation of terrorism as a cleverly constructed deception.

Ironically, on the question of peace in the Middle East, the Iron Lady is a dove.

IN HIS RECENT book, ‘London Jewry and London Polities 1889-1986’, Professor Geoffrey Alderman argues that Thatcher’s foreign policy is “more pro-Jewish than that of any of her predecessors since David Lloyd George.” Few could argue with that reality regardless of their attitude towards her policies in general and the motivation behind them. The recent resignation of the chancellor of the exchequer, Nigel Lawson, who is an assimilated Jew himself, may signal, albeit symbolically, the association of Thatcherism with Jews and Jewish concerns is on the wane. The current economic problems might also decrease the sense of infatuation felt in sonic Jewish circles. An increasingly unsympathetic Foreign Office where Israel is concerned is yet another point against Thatcher.

Paradoxically. Labour, although seemingly equally as critical on Israeli government policy as the Conservatives, may prove to be an important ally in the search for peace. Ned Kinnock, the party leader, has espoused a sympathetic position on Israel while distancing himself from the often inarticulate and unreal decisions of the Party Conference. As a Welshman, he feels an-ethnic affinity for Jews. As an admirer of Aneurin Bevan and the Old Left, he is aware of their considerable support for Israel in the early years of the state. In addition, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary is Gerald Kaufman.

Although he is disliked for his arrogant and abrasive approach to issues by many in Anglo-Jewry, he is a committed Jew and someone who would not disown the title “Zionist.” Like many other Diaspora Jews, he aligns himself with the peace camp in Israel. Thus if a Labour government does come to power, an Israeli government may find a highly informed foreign secretary who speaks the language of Zionism and who cannot be dismissed as an ignorant non-Jewish anti-Semite or a self-hating Jew.

Even so, this is all, of course, conjecture. Thatcher is a power-house of resilience. For the Lady, there is nothing more exciting and enjoyable than a good fight with the gloves off. No one, including her opponents, both within Labour and her own party, underestimates her. Undoubtedly, an eshet hayil in more senses than one.


Jerusalem Post 6 November 1989


Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.