Margaret Thatcher: The Honorary Jew

Why it took non-Jewish Labour activist – Robert Philpot – to understand the former prime minister’s relationship with British Jewry is of interest to Jeremy Newmark

As Labour’s 2017 parliamentary candidate in Finchley and Golders Green, I learned it is a constituency which attracts disproportionate media attention. Robert Philpot’s remarkably well-researched survey of Margaret Thatcher’s relationship with the Jewish community is rooted in two of the reasons for this: Finchley’s status as the constituency with the largest Jewish population in the United Kingdom, and the seat of the late former prime minister since her selection in 1958 (during which her predecessor complained that the shortlist gave his local association a choice between ‘a bloody Jew and a bloody woman’).

Thatcher’s popularity within the Jewish community presented the ultimate political paradox for Jews on the left. She personified values that run counter to classic Judaic principles of tikkun olam – supporting the weak and vulnerable, and the very notion of a covenantal society. Yet, on the other hand, her focus on education, aspiration and national identity resonated with a geographically and economically-mobile community in 1970s Britain and the two decades that followed. Philpot demonstrates with a series of impeccably detailed vignettes how Thatcher swiftly gained the community’s trust – to the extent that they seemingly overlooked the occasions when she did not wholeheartedly support Israel during difficult periods. These include Thatcher’s failure to publicly oppose the government’s arms embargo during the 1973 Yom Kippur war (described by future Labour foreign secretary David Owen as ‘the most cynical act of British foreign policy since Suez’); differences with the Board of Deputies over the Palestinian Liberation Organisation; and strong condemnation of Israel’s strike on Iraq’s nuclear reactor at Osirak. (Perhaps the lesson for Labour today is that if you are able build a relationship of trust with the Jewish community it actually becomes easier to criticise Israel.)

Philpot ascribes deep significance to Thatcher’s first childhood interaction with a Jewish person. Her father led Grantham Rotary Club in rescuing and housing Austrian refugee Edith Muhlbauer. Tensions between her classic Methodist upbringing and Muhlbauer’s liberal Austrian Jewish roots echo nuances of Thatcher’s relationship with her ‘circle’ of Jewish cabinet ministers and Downing Street advisers. Philpot provides fresh understanding as to how their roots and values impacted upon those relationships, often in surprising ways.

Critically, Philpot depth-charges the dynamic behind Thatcher’s relationship with former chief rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits. He looks beyond usual analysis that this was purely utilitarian, rooted in Thatcher’s desire to undermine the Church of England’s Faith in the Cities report, to which Jakobovits produced a deeply resonating counter-narrative that was broadly (although not totally) in line with Thatcher’s thinking. This caused a degree of communal disharmony.

Philpot correctly leaves us in no doubt that Thatcher’s relationship with the Jewish community went beyond political expediency. Its implications were wider than any relationship between a member of parliament and a large local faith community. It is fascinating that this book has not been written before now, and that it took a non-Jewish Labour activist to write it. Perhaps it required that perspective to clearly articulate the complexities and rightly leave the reader thinking that the title requires a question mark at the end.

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Jeremy Newmark is chair of the Jewish Labour Movement. He tweets at @Jeremy_Newmark

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The Honorary Jew by Robert Philpott
Biteback Publishing | 368pp | £20

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