JTA — Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who was considered a good friend of Israel despite a rocky relationship with Prime Minister Menachem Begin, has died.
Thatcher died Monday after suffering a stroke. She was 87. Thatcher suffered from dementia at the end of her life, which was dramatized in the 2011 movie “The Iron Lady.”
The only female to serve as prime minister of Britain, she also was the longest continuously serving prime minister in the 20th century, leading the country and her Conservative Party from 1979 to 1990.
Thatcher was supportive of Israel but had a troubled relationship with Begin, who served two terms in the 1980s. She called Begin the “most difficult” man she had to deal with, according to the Chronicle. She also strongly opposed Israel’s bombing of Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor.
She believed that the Arab-Israel conflict was at the center of the Western world’s difficulties in the Middle East, pressing Israeli leaders to make peace with the Palestinians in order to cool regional tensions.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu mourned her passing in a statement.
“She was truly a great leader, a woman of principle, of determination, of conviction, of strength; a woman of greatness,” Netanyahu said. “She was a staunch friend of Israel and the Jewish people. She inspired a generation of political leaders. I send my most sincere condolences to her family and to the government and people of Great Britain.”
Vivian Wineman, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, told JTA that Thatcher “was always extremely supportive and admiring of the ethos of the British Jewish community. This close relationship began when her family took in a young Austrian Jewish refugee from Nazism in the late 1930s.”
“There are people, there are ideas. Occasionally those two come together to create vision. Lady Thatcher was an exceptional leader, a colleague in the international arena and a friend for me personally,” Israeli President Shimon Peres said in a statement. “She served as an inspiration for other leaders, as the first female Prime Minister of Great Britain she broke new ground. She showed how far a person can go with strength of character, determination and a clear vision.”
The girl stayed with Thatcher’s family for two years before rejoining her family in South America.
Wineman said that when Thatcher entered the Parliament representing Finchley in north London, “a very Jewish constituency,” her relationship with local Jewish institutions blossomed and continued throughout her career as prime minister. During her campaign, she fought against a golf course in the district that banned having Jews as members.
Thatcher was a founding member of the Anglo-Israel Friendship League of Finchley and a member of the Conservative Friends of Israel, according to Tablet.
Wineman said Thatcher counted a number of Jews among her closest advisers and confidants, and at one point nearly a quarter of her Cabinet was of Jewish origins. They included Nigel Lawson, Malcolm Rifkind, Keith Joseph and Leon Brittan, according to the Jewish Chronicle.
“She also greatly admired the late Chief Rabbi Dr. Immanuel Jakobovits, whom she elevated to the House of Lords,” Wineman said. “She was unquestionably a great statesman of the later 20th century, and one who was a friend to the Jewish people and Israel.”
Thatcher reportedly had no patience for anti-Semitism nor those who espoused it. She was a strong supporter of Soviet Jewry.
She had a strong relationship with US President Ronald Reagan and together they fought communism, leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.