How Thatcher's Ideology Threatens To Kill Zionism

Thatcher—despite being a great friend of Israel—espoused an ideology that threatens to usher in the death of Zionism, writes Samuel Lebens.

Nigel Marple/AP

Margaret Thatcher's death has been the catalyst, in Britain, for a wide-ranging debate over her legacy. It's a debate that was conducted, by mainstream politicians at least, with a great deal of reverence, in contrast to the spontaneous street parties that broke out in celebration of her death. Tony Blair and many others, however, stood up for the respect that should be shown to a person in “their moment of passing.”

I disagree with the chorus of hatred for Thatcher. In order to be characterised as evil, I think your probably need to do evil things for evil reasons. Thatcher did some evil things, but very rarely, if ever, for evil reasons. On many issues she was wrong, and the left were right to oppose her bitterly. On many issues she was in the right, and ahead of her time, and thus many of the policies over which she was opposed have become part of the political consensus. The British economy was in need of radical restructuring, and she made this happen, although she often did this with a callous disregard for those who stood to lose out. I wouldn’t have voted for her, but I certainly don't celebrate her death. She was Britain's longest-serving Prime Minister of modern times and therefore deserved, I think, some sort of public recognition upon her passing. But it would be disrespectful to the memory of this great parliamentarian—this woman who used to revel in the cut and thrust of public debate—not to subject her legacy to continued public scrutiny. And I would like to do so as a Zionist.

Thatcher—despite being a great friend of Israel (such that our Prime Minister attended her funeral), and despite serving as something of an economic role-model for Netanyahu's own personal financial policies, making modern-day Israel a beacon of Thatcherism—espoused an ideology that basically threatens to usher in the death of Zionism.

Thatcher's economic vision was supposed to be meritocratic. She did want to see social mobility. And that was one of the reasons she was so popular with what were patronisingly called “the aspirational working classes.” But her model for meritocratic social mobility was predicated upon the value of cutthroat individualism. This ideology was most notably summed up in her controversial claim that “there is no such thing as society.” For her, it was each man for himself. The role of the state was merely to provide physical security from external threats and to engineer a fair playing field for the battle of cutthroat individualism. But what she didn't seem to realize was that this set of ethics was deeply incompatible with her strident nationalism. A nation is a collection of people with a shared set of values, a sense of shared destiny, a sense of fraternity. If there's no such thing as society, then there's certainly no such thing as a nation.

We have just celebrated Israel's Independence Day. But what strikes me as being more important right now even than our independence is our interdependence. Some years ago, Carlo Strenger was forced to conclude that the two-state solution had died, and, with it, the Zionist dream of a Jewish democracy lasting into the future. Part of Strenger's argument was that Israeli society had died. “For quite some time,” he wrote, almost paraphrasing Thatcher, “there has been no such thing as an Israeli society, but a number of tribes that hardly communicate with each other and have no common values except security. Israel already lives with the abnormality of having four different education systems: a secular Hebrew, a national-religious, an ultra-Orthodox and an Arab system.” And because Israeli society has failed to stay united, we don't really have a coherent state of our own to offer towards the eventual two-state solution. The one-state solution, in which the Palestinians and the Jews combine to make a secular state for all of its citizens, “will turn Israel’s disintegration as a society de facto into a reality de jure.”

If we care about Israel's future as a Jewish democracy, it seems to me that we have to strengthen the sense of fraternity that binds the Jewish world together. Our Independence is a modern miracle worthy of celebration. But our communal interdependence is a pre-requisite for our survival as a people, and it is that sense of interdependence that really needs to be re-nourished. As Thatcherite economics continue to hold sway over Israel, we have real reason to fear the continual disintegration of Israeli society.

So perhaps we should have a new national holiday, Israeli Interdependence Day, or Jewish World Interdependence Day. But maybe that would miss the point, too. We're not just dependent on each other. We're dependent on the external world. There can be no long-term Palestinian economic stability without cooperation with Israel, and it seems that there can be no long-term future for the State of Israel, at least not as a democratic Jewish state, if there is no viable future for a Palestinian state beside it. Thus, the Israelis and the Palestinians depend on each other. In fact, in this globalized world, we all depend on each other. There is such a thing as society. In fact, there are many societies. And all of them depend on each other for their continued survival.

I pray that as we bury Margaret Thatcher, we are not forced to bury Zionism along with her, and that her celebration of the independent individual is qualified in time by an equally important celebration of our individual and collective interdependence.