Op-Ed: Remembering the "Iron Lady"
As a young girl, Margaret Roberts listened to descriptions by her older sister, Muriel, about the plight of her Austrian Jewish pen pal who described the horrors of life under Nazi occupation. That girl, seventeen year old Edith Muhlbauer, was brought to England as part of the 1939 Kindertransport which brought ten thousand Jewish children from Germany to Great Britain, and was housed by the Roberts family. This was accomplished with the help of funds raised by Muriel and her sister, the future British Prime Minister, Margaret.
The relationship of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (1979-1990), with the State of Israel and the Jewish community can be described as warm. She was an admirer of the Jewish State and its many accomplishments and a staunch advocate for Soviet Jewry. Prime Minister Thatcher took a strong stance against terror, holding terror groups accountable for their deeds and words.
In the earlier days of her tenure, the very difficult past between Israel and Great Britain under the British Mandate (1920-1948) was reflected in the Prime Minister’s discomfort with the emergence of Likud leader and former commander of the underground, Irgun HaTzvai HaLeumi, Menachem Begin as Israeli Prime Minister. Referring to the hangings of two British soldiers in 1946, under Begin’s command in retaliation for the British execution of Irgun fighters held in the Acre prison, Thatcher reportedly stated that she could not forgive Begin, and that she would never meet with him unless necessary. The two leaders soon did meet, and the ties between the two nations were strengthened.
While prior British governments were often hostile to Israel, Thatcher increased relations with the Jewish State, and was a prominent member of the pro Israel organizations in the UK such as the Anglo-Israel Friendship League of Finchley and the Conservative Friends of Israel. Thatcher’s official three day visit to Israel in 1986 was the first official visit by an acting British Prime Minister.
At the Yad Vashem, Holocaust memorial, visibly moved, Thatcher laid a wreath, knelt, and then bowed her head for the traditional Yizkor prayer. Before she left, she inscribed a brief note that stated, “Margaret Thatcher -- the world must not forget.” Linking theYad Vashem visit to the current state of affairs, she told the press, “You can not go around there without understanding why security is of such enormous significance in Israel.”
At state banquet at Knesset in her honor, Prime Minister Thatcher joined in a Yemenite dance with then Prime Minister, Shimon Peres, and the popular Israeli performer, Ofra Haza. The ‘Iron Lady’ revealed a warm side. Wherever she traveled on that trip throughout Israel, throngs of enthusiastic crowds reached out to her.
Thatcher supported secure Israel in secure boundaries. She sought also sought mid-east peace, but not at Israel’s peril. Thatcher did endorse the rights of “Palestinians” and local elections in Gaza and the "West Bank". But only under conditions that Israel’s sovereignty was respected.
She also insisted that PLO renounce violence and accept UN resolution 242, which calls for recognition of Jewish Statehood. She emphatically stated that if the PLO would not renounce terror and recognize Israel, other representatives for the PLO would need to be found. She had concluded, after her efforts that “There is not yet a solution.”
Under her government, British leaders would not meet with the PLO until 1988, when the US government began talks with the PLO. Thatcher also stated that she did not see any efficacy in the creation of Palestinian State, but endorsed the idea of a confederation with Jordan proposed by the United States as, “the most likely proposal to achieve success.”
Thatcher was also an outspoken defender of the rights of Soviet Jewry. She constantly pressed Soviet leaders to allow Soviet Jews to leave, sometimes to the point of irritating Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachov. Whenever she traveled to the Soviet Union, she brought lists of Jewish refusniks who were denied visas and met with them. When Thatcher met with former Prisoner of Zion, Josef Begun, whom she presented an award from the All-Party Committee on Soviet Jewry, Dr. Begun told her that the morale of refusniks was kept up because other people had spoken up and would continue to do so on their behalf.
There were also moments of differences. She joined US leaders and condemned the Israeli strike against the Iraqi Osirik nuclear reactor in 1981 calling it a “grave breach of international law.” In response, she imposed an embargo on a shipment of arms to Israel during the 1982 Lebanon war.
In 1990, following her departure from British politics, then Israeli PM Yitzchak Shamir stated, “She stood absolutely firm against terror, a stand which inspired admiration in Israel. She clearly has a basic sympathy with Israel. Even though on not a few occasions our positions differed in regard to policy, deep down we felt she was a friend of Israel.”
Great Britain’s illustrious and only female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, will be remembered in the pro-Israel community as a friend of Israel and the Jewish people.