Acharei Mos-Kedoshim: Intimations of Mortality: Margaret Thatcher: Philo-Semite
by Jonathan Rosenblum
April 19, 2013
Intimations of Mortality
There comes a certain age where one finds oneself thinking increasingly about how one will be remembered. For me at least, these meditations have less to do with concrete accomplishments to which one can point, but rather with what of my life will be reflected in the choices of my children and grandchildren.
A few days ago, a mere snip of a lad, who recently celebrated his fiftieth birthday, told me that his children had presented him with a video production in honor of the occasion. Each child spoke about something their father had done or said that had a lasting impact on him or her. Their father confided to me that he had not remembered a single incident mentioned on the birthday video.
That itself is a pretty frightening thought. For it suggests, that our subsequent influence, such as it is, will have little to do with the sermons we preach at the family dinner table, but rather with the example we provide. And even the latter is as likely to be in unguarded small moments.
The passing of former Maariv editor Amnon Dankner of a heart attack at sixty-seven, provided fodder for more of the same sort of meditations. I can't say that I knew Dankner well. But he was the editor of Ma'ariv when I wrote regularly for the paper, and at a time when it still took some courage for a mainstream Israeli newspaper to publish a chareidi writer. At our first meeting, he indicated that he knew I had written critically of some of his opinions in the past, and indicated that he would not hold it against me.
Though he did not come from a religious home, Dankner attended a national religious high school, and on more than one occasion showed sensitivity to the pull of a religious life. More than thirty years ago, he wrote a piece in which he juxtaposed himself to the lonely yeshiva bochur in Bialik's famous poem: "The wind has carried them all away/The light has sucked them on/And I'm left all alone."
Only now, it was the secular Dankner contemplating the disappearance of his old buddies, who one by one have turned towards religion, and wondering whether the "whole act about Haskalah and Zionism was only an intermediate step, necessary to build a Jewish state. But now, it's all over and those generations have completed their historic task. Now we return to what we really are. To what we should be."
About a decade ago, he lamented the lack of discipline and respect for authority among Israeli youth – qualities antithetical to everything they experience at home, on the street, or view on television. And he located the source of that malaise in modern Israel's break with its "magnificent Jewish heritage." Globes reported that he even organized a Ramban study circle at the time. And when a friend warned that he risked becoming a ba'al teshuva he replied that it was a risk he was willing to take.
Though Dankner was identified with the Left most of his life, he was really a contrarian more than anything. It is an attitude that can lead to both homeruns and some inglorious strikeouts. He was a sharp and effective critic of the Left-dominated government legal establishment – perhaps one reason he tolerated my columns – and an ardent defender of both Aryeh Deri and his long-time friend Ehud Olmert.
His last column, as far as I know, was one of the strikeouts. Published just prior to Pesach, he recounts a story, which he says he has told over many times, of his refusal to join the family Seder one year. Neither his wife's tears nor the imploring of various relatives can induce him to leave his bed, where he sits propped up by fluffy pillows. As he moves his arms, as if directing the Seder being conducted downstairs from his bed, Dankner claims to experience true freedom.
The behavior Dankner describes – the inconsideration to his wife and family, the sophomoric nature of his rebellion – would have embarrassed a twenty-year-old, and for a 67-year-old man, with some years to reflect on his deeds, to relate it as somehow noteworthy evokes only pity.
Columnists often have the sense of only being as good as one's last column. Perhaps it is that way for all of us. None of us can know when the curtain will suddenly be brought down on our turn on the stage of life or the last column published.
Thinking about how we would be remembered if these were our last words or deeds is one powerful way of helping to ensure that we will be remembered for the good by those who constitute our most important legacy.
Margaret Thatcher, Philo-Semite
News of the passing of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher occasioned none of the sadness over talents wasted or paths not taken that Amnon Dankner's did. Hers was an eminently successful life, and she will be remembered, along with her idol Winston Churchill, as one of the two great British prime ministers of the twentieth century. Historian Paul Johnson called her the greatest woman leader since Catherine the Great.
She broke the powerful unions that had left England virtually ungovernable by the time she entered office in 1979, and cut the highest tax rates by more than half. As a result, England, which was seen as in irreversible decline when she assumed the reins of office, went from being the sixth largest economy in the world to the fourth by the time she left office eleven years later – Britain's longest serving prime minister in the twentieth century. That revived economy soaked up one-half of all the incoming capital invested in Europe in that period.
She warned presciently against freedom-loving Brits submitting to the rule of bureaucrats in Brussels, and fought hard and successfully against Great Britain joining the eurozone's single currency, the collapse of which appears imminent. She set the stage for Tony Blair's New Labourites, who eventually succeeded her and made little effort to reverse her greatest achievements.
But for all her impact on the course of history, when Thatcher was asked to name her greatest accomplishment, she often recounted something she had done when she was twelve. Her older sister Muriel had a Viennese Jewish pen-pal named Edith Muhlbauer, who sought Muriel's help escaping Austria after the Anschluss. Margaret and Muriel's father, Alfred Roberts was a green grocer, and the family had neither the space nor resources to take in a long-term boarder. But the two sisters went about collecting the funds from local Rotarians to bring Edith to England. She stayed with a dozen local families, including the Roberts, for two years, before joining relatives in South America. "Never hesitate to do whatever you can, for you may save a life," was the lesson that Margaret learned from this event.
MARGARET THATCHER WAS A LIFELONG STRIVER, determined to succeed on her own abilities. A series of scholarships took her to Oxford University, and to degrees in both chemistry and law. Even as prime minister, she kept a notebook in her purse to jot down important ideas that she heard.
She saw in the Jewish people strivers like herself, who had succeeded wildly in every society that gave them the opportunity to do so. She had, according to the Jewish Chronicles' Chaim Berlant, "an almost mystical faith in Jewish abilities." She was also a fervent admirer of the web of social welfare institutions that have always characterized Jewish communities. She urged Christians to take "closer note of the Jewish emphasis on self-help and acceptance of personal responsibility," and once noted that in the 33 years she represented the heavily Jewish Finchley district of London in the House of Commons, "I never had a Jew come in poverty and desperation to [me]."
Her Calvinist disposition had little taste for the warmed over pablum offered by the contemporary Church of England. Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobowitz was her closest spiritual advisor. He was elevated to the House of Lords at her instance, the first Chief Rabbi to be so honored.
The scholarship student was an outsider to the ranks of aristocratic grandees who have traditionally dominated Conservative Party politics, and they cordially resented her for it. She returned their contempt, and then some. The Jews in the Conservative Party were similarly outsiders. At one point, fully half of her cabinet were Jews. Former Prime Minister Harold MacMillan remarked wittily, but not without a trace a rancor, that her cabinet contained "more Estonians than Old Etonians." (Eton's requirement that students' father's be British was specifically designed to exclude Jews.)
She was justly known as the Iron Lady. She shocked Argentina by fighting a war over the Falkland Islands 8,000 miles away to protect the rights of a few hundred English-speaking sheep ranchers. Prior to the first Iraq War, she told President George H.W. Bush, "George, don't go wobbly on me." She had an implacable hatred of Communism, and is generally credited, along with President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul I, with bringing about the demise of the Soviet Union.
On one issue in particular the Soviets felt her steel – Jewish refuseniks. In a nine-hour meeting with Mikhael Gorbachev, she raised the issue of the refuseniks repeatedly. In her autobiography, The Downing Street Years, she wrote, "The Soviets had to know that every time we met their treatment of the refuseniks would be thrown back at them."
Thatcher described herself as a "conviction" politician, not a consensus builder. And she demonstrated that even in an age of mediocre politicians, it is still possible for a leader of courage, holding on to two or three basic ideas with "fervor and tenacity" (in Paul Johnson's description) to change history for the better.
(I am deeply indebted to Charles Johnson' "Thatcher and the Jews" for much of the information about her relationship to the Jewish community.)
Related Topics: Intellectuals, Personalities, Social Issues, World Jewry
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