April 10, 2103.
“Thatcher’s admiration for Israel is expressed clearly in her memoirs: They really made the desert bloom.”
She single-handedly transformed post-colonialist Britain’s “sclerotic” economy; she bravely defended the United Kingdom’s interests in the Falkland Islands – in the process precipitating the toppling of Argentina’s ruling junta and restoring the British pride in nation; she is even credited, together with US president Ronald Reagan, with ending the Cold War and sparking the ascendancy of free-market capitalism throughout the Western world and beyond.
But when the late Margaret Thatcher was asked to share what she felt was her most meaningful accomplishment, she mentioned none of these many successes. Instead, Britain’s only female prime minister related her part in helping to save a young Austrian girl from the Nazis.
As related by British Ambassador to Israel Matthew Gould in an interview Tuesday on Army Radio and as told by Charles C. Johnson in a piece that appears on the Jewish news site Tablet, in 1938 Margaret, then just 12, and her sister Muriel, 17, set about raising the money and persuading the local Rotary Club to help save Edith Muhlbauer, 17, from Hitler’s Austria. They succeeded. For the next two years Muhlbauer stayed with more than a dozen Rotary families and for a time bunked with young Margaret.
That it was this episode in her long life of political activism that stood out for Thatcher is revealing. Nazism and other variants of totalitarian forms of government, such as Communism – under which Jews, more than any other people, suffered – were the antithesis of Thatcher’s worldview.
By contrast, the Jewish people, who thrived wherever they were given freedom and an equal playing field, represented all that Thatcher believed in: meritocracy, the ability of individuals to excel if given the chance, and self-help.
Thatcher witnessed these traits firsthand as an MP representing the north London borough of Finchley, prominently populated with middle-class, entrepreneurial Jews.
“In the 33 years that I represented [Finchley],” Thatcher later wrote, according to Johnson, “I never had a Jew come in poverty and desperation to one of my [town meetings].”
Thatcher was impressed by the tremendous achievements of the plucky Jewish state as well, though she was consistently critical of Israel’s policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians and opposed the Begin government’s airstrike on the Osirak nuclear facility in 1981 as well as its decision to invade Lebanon in 1982.
Thatcher’s admiration for Israel is expressed clearly in her memoirs: “The political and economic construction of Israel against huge odds and bitter adversaries is one of the heroic sagas of our age. They really made the desert bloom.”
It would not be an exaggeration to argue that the 1985 Economic Stabilization Program, implemented by a Likud- Labor (Alignment) national unity government, was inspired – at least in part – by the increasing dominance of neo-liberal economic thought popularized by – among others – Thatcher. After the “iron lady” proved that it was possible to transform a failing economy with a tyrannizing labor union, anachronistic, nationalized industries and suffocating bureaucracy, Israel could follow in Thatcher’s footsteps and take many of the same steps.
Fiscal discipline, later enshrined in the Deficit Reduction Law, was implemented, bringing down three-digit inflation to around 20 percent; monetary and capital market reforms were instituted, gradually opening the Israeli economy to foreign investments and competition; privatization reduced state involvement in the economy and the weakening of the Histadrut.
All of these factors, combined with the waves of immigration from the Former Soviet Union, resulted in a new spurt of economic growth and the explosion of the Israeli hi-tech industry. The majority of Israelis rightly continue to believe in capitalism, judging from the January 22 elections.
Thanks to the demonstrations of two summers ago, for the first time in decades socioeconomic issues were brought to the forefront during an electoral campaign.
Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, with its platform of free market capitalism, was the big winner. So was the revamped religious-Zionist Bayit Yehudi party under the leadership of hi-tech entrepreneur Naftali Bennett. Like Thatcher, Israelis understand that competitive markets and less government intervention create incentive which leads to innovation.
Throughout history Jews have prospered and excelled in countries where they were given a fair chance. The same holds true today when Jews have their own state.
Only by fostering a competitive, productive economy can the formerly stateless Jewish people ensure that they will continue to flourish in the land of Israel. This is Thatcher’s legacy for Israel.