Love of the Jews can be as unexpected and profound a moral mystery as unreasoning hatred of them: Until Margaret Thatcher ran for parliament in Finchley in London in 1959, she had hardly interacted with a Jew in her life and when she had, the results were not always happy.
Her father, the modest family grocer Alfred Roberts, we learn from the first volume of Charles Moore’s riveting new biography Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography From Grantham to the Falklands, had saved a young Jewish girl’s life before World War II by volunteering a home for her as part of the famous 1938-39kindertransport.
But the humble Roberts home (it is one of the many surprises in this great book to find out just how modest) was not to the guest’s liking. She quickly retreated to more upscale accommodation leaving a heritage of social inferiority and resentment in her wake.
The young Margaret Roberts was nothing if not a social climber herself. This turned out to be the unexpected but enduring foundation for her lifelong admiration for the Jewish people. The Jews of Finchley proved to be a revelation for the young Mrs. Thatcher. It was a match made in the Methodist heaven she was raised to believe in.
She was a workaholic, social-climbing, snob, endlessly giving herself new airs and graces: So were they. Just as Orde Wingate found the Old Testament Biblical warrior-heroes of his fundamentalist Plymouth Brethren upbringing in the young Moshe Dayan, Yigael Allon and their fellow Haganah pioneers, Thatcher found the serious, relentlessly upwardly mobile, disciplined focused families idealized in her upbringing in the Jews of Finchley.
Mrs. Thatcher, on the basis of the mountains of evidence Moore accumulates in what is clearly going to be the classic, definitive biography (a second volume is scheduled to complete the story), was hell to live with and not at all a nice person. Her husband Dennis, a hugely successful businessman proved to be the crucial emotional and financial support for her success. But even he fled her for a few months early in their marriage. Her treatment of her doting father, to whom she owed so much, in his last years was simply shameful, a reality Moore honorably acknowledges. But she grew into far, far more than she began.
When Israel faced the threat of total destruction and a new genocide in the darkest moments of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Thatcher, then only an extremely humble minister (in everyone else’s eyes, but certainly not her own) told the rest of the Cabinet, according to the official minutes, that the British government “Must say no question of Israel being wiped off the face of the Earth.” Prime Minister Edward Heath immediately slapped her down, saying “Don’t accept Educ’s (Education Minister’s) view of public opinion. It’s a Jewish-inspired press campaign.”
The two intellectual gurus she most valued were Jewish, Keith Joseph, whom she elevated to the House of Lords, and Alfred Sherman, whom she knighted. But she had already loved Israel when she first visited it as a simple Member of Parliament in 1967. “They don’t pay people for being idle in Israel,” she said. High praise coming from her.
Immanuel Jakobovits, Chief Rabbi of Britain, was a more complex case. She loved his old-fashioned, even innocent and very naïve black and white view of morality and the Ten Commandments, something she often complained she could not find in a single bishop of the Church of England, Jacobovits’ own self-righteous propensity to always lecture Israel over its alleged, not to mention imagined, inequities, did not go down badly with her either. But she drew the line when Jacobovits whined during the Falklands War that compassion should be shown for the families of terrorist murderers too. Her mentor and cherished friend Airey Neave had lost his life to some of those terrorists.
Margaret Thatcher was Britain’s Charles De Gaulle, even its Ariel Sharon: Like them she rallied a country beset by civic strife and murderous terrorism and restored its security, prosperity and pride to stand again strong and defiant in the world.
Her achievements were lasting and real. But as Charles Moore documents in this superb book, did ever a heroic, towering oak spring from a more unlikely acorn?
Martin Sieff is an editor at Sputnik, the Russian-owned news organization. He is the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Middle East (2008), Gathering Storm (2014) and Cycles of Change: The Three Great Eras of American History and the Coming Crisis that will Lead to the Fourth (2014). Follow Martin on: @MartinSieff