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AJN May 2013 Margaret Thatcher

01/05/13 14:04:24


Much has been written about Margaret Thatcher and much will be written about Margaret Thatcher, for Margaret Thatcher was smart, formidable, challenging, charismatic and compelling. Such individuals excite great passion; such individuals transform the landscape of humanity.

There are far more qualified politicians, pundits and historians than I who will continue to debate the legacy of this remarkable woman. I would like to focus on some of her statements and what they say to us as Jews and human beings.

The first is a comment about family origins: “I just owe almost everything to my father and it’s passionately interesting for me that the things I learned in a small town, in a  very modest home are just the things that I believe have won the election.”

Maggie Thatcher never forgot her humble beginnings, nor lost her common touch. There are many stories told of her personal warmth and caring, how she would be sure to chat to “the little people”, to have her photograph with those who requested it, to speak to the kitchen staff at functions and to bend to chat to a little child. As Rabbi Katsof notes: The quality that God values above all in a great leader is their humility; Moses was chosen to lead the Jewish people because of his compassion for a defenceless lamb. Says the Midrash in the name of God: “You who tend to little sheep with such mercy will be a compassionate leader for my people.”

There is a wonderful story told of how at a dinner at the Knesset, a range of high profile speakers spoke after the first light course. When it came to Lady Thatcher’s turn to speak, she got up and said she had shredded her prepared speech since “I have never lost an election and this is because I can read a crowd. This crowd is hungry. As a woman and mother, I say: ‘serve dinner!’”

Thatcher understood the importance of recognising where you come from which is of course elemental to Judaism. As we acknowledged at the beginning of our Haggadah readings recently “Originally our ancestors were idolators…”Notwithstanding  Abraham’s ignoble beginnings  he never forgot who his father was and Terach’s role in shaping the character and destiny of Abraham is analysed by several commentators. We can speculate that Abraham’s chesedand common touch were nurtured in this very home of a pagan.

Margaret Thatcher is however closer to Queen Esther, one of the great Jewish women of history than to Abraham or Moses. Like Queen Esther she was an astute politician with personal charm or chen but with a steel will. Rav Soloveitchik in fact interprets the chen or charm of Esther as her charismatic endowment, the way she won the hearts of the king and her admirers, the way she was able to outwit the diabolical Haman.

Esther understood implicitly what Margaret expressed explicitly: “Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.”

 The obduracy of the Iron Lady was legendary and probably her most controversial trait. Some saw it as the hallmark of strong leadership, for others it was a sign of her inflexibility. For the former it restored Britain’s glory and pride, for the latter it undermined British society, created division and deepened inequality. It is also the source of arguably her most famous quote at the Party Conference in 1980.

“To those waiting ….for (me to make) a U-turn, I have only one thing to say. You turn if you want to. The lady is not for turning.”

Referring to her colleagues she once commented: “I don’t mind how much my ministers talk, as long as they do what I say.” This wouldn’t have endeared her to them and may well have contributed to the unceremonial way they dumped her at the end of her premiership. It does however remind us  that human beings are infinitely complex and how humility and hubris can coexist in the same individual. Perhaps this is what our sages had in mind when they said (L’Havdil) that wherever you find examples of God’s humility (in the Torah) you also find juxtaposed examples of his greatness.

It is not however personality alone that leads to human greatness, it takes hard work. Malcolm Gladwell in his remarkable book “Outliers” has shown how it takes 10,000 hours to gain true expertise in any area. Jewish tradition has always counselled that you need to labour for six days to gain a sense of peace and accomplishment on the seventh. Margaret Thatcher knew all about hard work and she practised what she preached, working with discipline and endurance throughout her life and certainly in her years in office. She put it best when she said: “I do not know anyone who has got to the top without hard work. That is the recipe. It will not always get you to the top, but should get you pretty near.”

Margaret Thatcher’s own recipe included a quintessentially Jewish characteristic: being fiercely argumentative. Perhaps this is what attracted her to Jews and her elevation of several Jews to office including Nigel Lawson, Malcolm Rifkind and Keith Joseph. In a very rabbinic statement, she once remarked: “I love argument, I love debate. I don’t expect anyone just to sit there and agree with me, that’s not their job.”

Margaret Thatcher was a staunch defender of Jewish causes and a friend of Israel, she often turned to Chief Rabbi, Lord Jacobowitz for advice. When asked about her most meaningful accomplishment she did not mention serving in the British government, defeating the Argentine invasion of the Falklands, taming runaway inflation, or toppling the Soviet Union. The woman who reshaped British politics and served as prime minister from 1979 to 1990 often said that her greatest accomplishment was helping save a young Jewish Austrian girl from the Nazis (which she and her sister did by raising money and the help of Rotary).

To conclude with a final quote: “If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done ask a woman.”

Lady Margaret Thatcher not only knew how to say things, she also knew how to do them with passion, precision and conviction. She was a singular woman.

Ralph Genende
May 2013

Mon, 17 May 2021 6 Sivan 5781