Britain’s new prime minister, like her trailblazing female predecessor Margaret Thatcher, is a firm supporter of Israel, and of the Jewish community… and of a celebrity Israeli chef. As Theresa May prepares to succeed David Cameron, here are six Jewish or Israeli links, ranging from her mother’s name to her cooking preferences.
Biblical echo: Thatcher was the famously driven daughter of a grocery store owner. May, too, comes from a relatively unprivileged background — both of her grandmothers were domestic servants. Her parents both died when she was in her mid-20s — her father in a car crash and her mother of multiple sclerosis. Her father was a vicar, the Rev. Hubert Brasier. Her mother’s first name was Zaidee, an unusual name reportedly chosen for its Old Testament echoes — Zaidee or the more common Sadie deriving from Sarah, wife of the biblical Abraham.
Israel trip: May visited Israel for the first in June 2014 — three months after Cameron had delivered an exceptionally supportive speech in the Knesset. Hers was a relatively low-profile trip, focused on her areas of responsibility as home secretary — policing, human trafficking, cyber-security — although she also visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and placed a wreath in memory of those killed in “the most terrible crime of history.” She later said of the visit that she was “delighted to see first-hand the flourishing partnership between the UK and Israel.” She also later lamented the murder of three Israeli teenagers at the time of her visit, and hailed the brave Israeli soldiers who have paid “the ultimate price” to defend Israel in wartime and against terrorism.
Elle est Juif: In the aftermath of last year’s Paris Hyper Cacher and Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks, May was photographed holding a “Je Suis Juif” placard, and she has spoken since of the importance of Anglo Jewry to Britain. Addressing the Bnei Akiva youth movement’s Israel Independence Day event this year, for instance, May bewailed the “tragic fact of history that the Jewish people have had to protect themselves against repeated attempts to obliterate them.”
She said she was “appalled” by the reported rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, including in the UK — “no one should live in fear because of their beliefs,” she said. She acknowledged that “many Jewish people in this country are feeling vulnerable and fearful… I never thought I would see the day when members of the Jewish community in the United Kingdom would say that they were fearful of remaining here in our country,” she said. “We cherish the enormous contribution you make… Without its Jews, Britain would not be Britain.”
No quenelles please, we’re British: In 2014, she banned the French anti-Semitic comedian Dieudonne from entering the UK.
Hanukkah upgrade: May has spoken at a variety of Jewish events — including the annual dinner of the Community Security Trust, a dinner for London’s Orthodox Hasmonean High School, and the Bnei Akiva Independence Day event. Last December, she “stood in for David Cameron at the Downing Street Chanucah party, lighting the menorah alongside Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis,” the Jewish Chronicle noted on Monday. “Little could she have dreamt that this year she would be repeating the feat as Prime Minister herself.”
Yummy Yotam: In a recent interview, May said she had 100 cookbooks in her collection. Asked about her preferred culinary guides, she eschewed celebrity British chef Delia Smith as being too “precise,” and instead cited Israel’s own Yotam Ottolenghi. That choice inspired a rave psychological assessment on The Spectator website, where writer Melanie McDonagh called the choice “gobsmacking.”
Ottolenghi, she noted, “is, among other things, a Guardian columnist (vegetarian) and for good measure a gay secular Jewish Israeli, who is married and has a son by a surrogate mother. His business partner is a gay Palestinian, and the kitchen staff are a collection of every nationality under the sun. On top of all that, Ottolenghi does things with Middle Eastern flavours that no one else does… He is the man who took pomegranate molasses from Iranian grocers to the trolleys of the middle classes.”
Concluded McDonagh, “It is, frankly, astounding that the Home Secretary is an Ottolenghi woman. I’d have unhesitatingly billed her as a Delia person myself – controlled, reliable, very very good but safe with it. What she’s telling us here is that there’s another, different side to her.”
We’re all about to find out.