Maggie always had a deep affection for the Jewish people

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher straightens out the flowers at a grave in the British war cemetery in Jerusalem, Israel on May 25, 1986

By Ron Kampeas

THERE are a thousand and one reasons for which "Iron Lady" Margaret Thatcher will be remembered.

But it was her embrace of British Jews and insistent promotion of Jews in her Conservative Party which left an indelible mark on Jewry in this country.

The 87-year-old former prime minister died peacefully on Monday after suffering a stroke.

She had suffered from dementia in her later years.

Lady Thatcher's tenure as prime minister, from 1979 to 1990, helped thrust Britain back on to the international stage following its post-World War Two years of end-of-empire angst and political turmoil.

For the country's Jews, however, the naming of at least five of their number to Cabinet positions and her determined pushback against anti-Jewish grumbling among the Conservative Party's backbenchers made what once was laughable imaginable - the possibility of a Jewish prime minister.

"Lady Thatcher was always extremely supportive and admiring of the ethos of the British Jewish community," said Vivian Wineman, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews.

He added that the mutual admiration was rooted in personal history.

In the 1930s, her family took in an Austrian Jewish refugee. In 1959, Margaret Thatcher was elected to Parliament representing Finchley, the constituency in north London with a large Jewish population.

"She counted a number of Jews among her closest advisers and confidants, and at one point nearly a quarter of her Cabinet were of Jewish origins," Mr Wineman said.

Moshe Maor, a Hebrew University political science professor whose expertise is Britain, said Lady Thatcher admired the British Jewish community's self-reliance, an ethos she embraced as she dedicated herself to weaning Britons off public assistance.

"She admired hard work, and the Jewish community was not dependent on the state," said Prof Maor. "It was structured in such a way that Jews help others in their community.

"That was the culture Thatcher tried to advance."

It was one also embraced by Britain's late chief rabbi, Immanuel Jakobovits, whom Mrs Thatcher elevated to the House of Lords. Frustrated by protests among Christian leaders of the rapid pace of her economic reforms, she increasingly turned for spiritual reinforcement to Lord Jakobovits, who became widely known as "Thatcher's rabbi."

Mrs Thatcher's rule coincided with social changes among the country's 350,000 Jews.

Once proudly working class, British Jews by the 1980s had become increasingly middle class, more likely to be self-employed and alarmed at the leftward lurch of the leadership in the Labour Party.

"She got on quite well with Jews," said Mr Wineman.

"She said once that she thought she probably had more constituents in Tel Aviv than in Finchley."

Margaret Thatcher never hesitated to advance the careers of talented young Jews in her party - among them Leon Brittan, a secretary of trade; Nigel Lawson, a chancellor of the exchequer; Edwina Currie, a health minister; Malcolm Rifkind, a secretary of state for Scotland; and Michael Howard, a secretary of employment. Mr Rifkind went on to become foreign minister. Mr Howard became home secretary and then Opposition leader, burying for ever the notion that a British leader had to come from the country's official faith - Anglicanism.

Mrs Thatcher's embrace of the Jewish community did not make its romance with the Tories a permanent one.

Tony Blair's purges of the Labour left after his 1997 election helped draw back some Jewish voters. But Mr Howard's precedent helped set the stage for ascension of the current leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband, the son of Polish Jewish immigrants.

Mrs Thatcher also earned kudos for her robust foreign policy and maintaining strong ties with Israel at a time of tension between the Jewish state and other European nations.

"She was truly a great leader, a woman of principle, of determination, of conviction, of strength; a woman of greatness," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said after learning of her death. "She was a staunch friend of Israel and the Jewish people. She inspired a generation of political leaders."

Mrs Thatcher restored the notion of Britain shining everywhere the sun rose when she launched a war in 1982 to keep Argentina from claiming the Falkland Islands.

The war was won - and the days of Argentina's autocracy of the generals numbered - she was ready to take on the mantle of Iron Lady v Iron Curtain.

She became President Ronald Reagan's indispensable partner in squeezing the life out of Soviet hegemony.

In 1983, she told leaders of the Soviet Jewry movement that she would do "absolutely everything" to support their cause, which dovetailed with her revulsion of communism.

Mrs Thatcher did not shy away from taking on Israeli leaders.

She tussled with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin over his refusal to deal with Palestinian leaders and the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, calling him the "most difficult" man she had to deal with.

© 2013 Jewish Telegraph