Thousands of posters of Golda Meir appeared in the windows of Jewish homes; money poured in to fundraising appeals; and synagogues set up blood banks to provide Israel with urgently needed supplies. The Zionist Labour leader of the Opposition was Israel’s most loyal and ardent friend while a Europhile Conservative Prime Minister was seen as betraying the Jewish State in pursuit of European unity and Arab oil. The year was 1973 and the Yom Kippur War, launched by the Arab states against Israel, was dividing Britain’s two main parties, galvanising the Jewish community, and the following year would even influence the outcome of the general election. The story is told by Robert Philpot, author of Margaret Thatcher, Honorary Jew: How Britain’s Jews Helped Shape the Iron Lady and Her Beliefs, (Biteback, 2017).
On 28 February 1974, Britain went to the polls in an election triggered by Edward Heath’s determination to win a mandate to defeat the industrial unrest sweeping the country. In her north London seat of Finchley, one of the Prime Minister’s Cabinet was feeling distinctly nervous. Her initial optimism about the election, Margaret Thatcher later wrote in her memoirs, had been ‘replaced by unease’.
If the Education Secretary was uneasy, her young Liberal opponent, Laurence Brass, was beginning to feel that he might be on the verge of pulling off a famous victory. That feeling only grew when ITV called to ask him to appear on its results programme the next day. The broadcaster was, a producer explained, expecting him to be one of the night’s shock victors.
But Mrs Thatcher’s difficulties in Finchley were not just the result of the unpropitious backdrop against which Heath had chosen to call an election – the country was suffering soaring inflation and, thanks to the miners’ strike, industry had been forced on to a three-day week – but were also rooted in events in the Middle East some five months earlier.
Finchley had the highest proportion of Jewish voters in the country, and – both there and throughout the country – they were preparing to render a harsh verdict on the Heath government’s handling of the Yom Kippur war.
Mrs Thatcher herself had established a strong relationship with local Jewish voters. She had rooted out antisemitism in the local Conservative association, become a familiar figure at local community events, and had always been staunchly supportive of Israel. The future Prime Minister had first visited the Jewish state in 1965 and returned full of admiration for it. Two years later, she had been full-throated in her support of Israel in the Six Day War, declaring at a rally shortly after its victory that it should ‘not withdraw from her new territories until she has her borders guaranteed. You cannot ask a nation to withdraw from the only bargaining point she has’.
Now, however, Mrs Thatcher stood accused of treachery. She appeared on a list of MPs in a Zionist Federation pamphlet entitled ‘Why Did They Ignore Israel?’ Launching his campaign, Brass declared that he intended to make her ‘betrayal of Israel’ a focal point of his campaign; he had, he told the local weekly newspaper, received far more correspondence from voters on that issue than the miners’ strike. ‘I know a lot of people want to tell Mrs Thatcher how they feel about the role she played personally over the government’s moves on the Middle East war. I will certainly be reminding people of that record,’ Brass, who was himself Jewish and a founder member of Liberal Friends of Israel, suggested.
Mrs Thatcher’s perceived crime was to have voted in parliament to support the Heath government’s decision to impose an arms embargo on both sides at the start of the Yom Kippur War. It was a vote that, as a member of the government, she was bound by collective responsibility to cast. Behind closed doors, however, Mrs Thatcher and a handful of her colleagues argued vigorously against the policy in Cabinet – labelling it wrong and correctly predicting that the government would pay a political price for it.
Heath’s decision to impose an arms embargo after the surprise assault on Israel at Yom Kippur was intimately connected to Britain’s deep economic difficulties. Fearing that an interruption in supplies would deal a further blow to his already teetering economic policy, Heath sought to appease the oil-producing Arab states. While the United States offered Israel its support, Britain joined with its new EEC partners – Holland proving an honourable exception – in attempting to avoid the cross-fire and any ensuing economic cost.
Refusing to condemn aggression perpetrated against Israel, Heath pursued a policy that, he later claimed, was ‘genuinely even-handed’. Britain urged a ceasefire and a return to the 1967 frontiers and imposed an arms embargo on both sides. The government also refused to allow the US to resupply Israel from British bases (thus ruling out Cyprus) and placed restrictions on flights out of UK installations by the Americans’ state-of-the-art Blackbird reconnaissance aircraft; restrictions which, historians believe, placed the US planes at great risk.
Heath’s claim of even-handedness involved a sleight of hand, albeit one with an element of truth. As his memoirs recorded, during the 1967 conflict, most of the UK’s arm exports to the region went to Israel. By 1973, sales were more evenly split between Israel and her Arab enemies. Indeed, shortly before the outbreak of the conflict, Heath’s defence secretary, Lord Carrington, had been in Saudi Arabia to seal what was then Britain’s biggest-ever arms deal with the desert kingdom.
Although presented as affecting both sides, in reality, the arms embargo hit Israel hardest. Perhaps the most shameful decision was Britain’s refusal to supply Israel with spare parts for weapons, including shells for Centurion tanks, that it had previously sold to the Jewish state. It was, suggested the future Labour Foreign Secretary David Owen, ‘the most cynical act of British foreign policy since Suez’, while Lord Hailsham, Heath’s Lord Chancellor, told Douglas-Home the refusal was ‘ignoble and immoral’.
All the while, Egyptian pilots were continuing to be trained by Britain. The opera-loving Heath appears not to have taken the risk to Israel with much seriousness, telling Roslyn Lyons, the wife of Jewish businessman Sir Jack Lyons, that ‘the only warlike Egyptians I have ever heard of were in Aida’. At the UN, Britain failed to support a US-sponsored resolution calling for a ceasefire, lamely claiming in its defence that the draft resolution couldn’t succeed because President Sadat of Egypt was opposed.
The government coupled its professions of neutrality with words that betrayed a distinct lack of sympathy for the imperilled Jewish state. Addressing the Conservative Party conference a week after the attack, Foreign Secretary Sir Alec Douglas-Home declared that he had been certain ‘it would not be psychologically possible for the Arabs to go on gazing indefinitely at their own lands without the eruption of war’. For its efforts, Britain, together with France, was classified as a ‘friendly’ nation by Saudi Arabia, although this did not prevent the UK also being hit by an OPEC-imposed sharp rises in oil prices.
The Israelis were horrified by Britain’s approach. As Abba Eban, the then Foreign Minister, recounted in his memoirs: ‘The decision of Edward Heath and his government in London came as a specially harsh blow at [Israel’s] … lowest point in her ordeal.’ The quantities of armaments at stake, he continued, were ‘not vast, and the material effect to us perhaps not decisive, but the British example affected other European countries’.
The United States was similarly unimpressed. ‘And whose side are you on?,’ the then US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, angrily asked the British ambassador to Washington, Lord Cromer, when the war broke out. In private, he was more blunt still, telling the staff at his department that the Europeans had ‘behaved like jackals’. Tensions remained high a month later when, on the eve of a NATO summit in early November 1973, the US defence secretary, James Schlesinger, warned Carrington that Britain’s actions, and its failure to stand with Israel, had put the ‘special relationship’ under considerable strain. ‘At look at some of the secret exchanges,’ Carrington’s biographer, Christopher Lee, has argued, ‘suggests the mood could hardly have been grimmer’.
In Parliament: ‘See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’
But, as Hailsham’s remarks suggest, Heath’s approach did not go unchallenged domestically. In 1967, his predecessor in Downing Street, Harold Wilson, had – behind a cloak of official neutrality – strongly supported Israel. Now leader of the Opposition, Wilson was equally determined to stand by the Jewish state.
Wilson was in daily contact with the Israelis via the London Embassy and, at their urging, pressured the government to lift the arms embargo, on the basis that the Arab states were being resupplied by their allies. After meeting with Heath privately, and being rebuffed, the Labour leader went public with his criticism.
In a debate in parliament, Wilson launched a rhetorical assault on the government’s policy. He accused it of ‘dishonouring contractual obligations [to supply arms and spare parts] at the very moment of Israel’s greatest need’, likened its stance to Britain’s policy of non-intervention during the Spanish Civil War, and, raising the spectre of appeasement, warned that Britain must not give in to blackmail by ‘oil-rich monarchs and presidents’. He lauded Israel – ‘a democratic socialist country’ – as ‘by any test … the only democracy in [the] region’ and said he ‘bitterly regretted’ that more of his fellow leaders in the Socialist International had not declared where their loyalties lie. The government’s policy was one of ‘see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil’.
Under attack not only from the Labour frontbench, but also from pro-Israel Tories and Liberals, Douglas-Home struggled to defend the government’s policy. ‘I am sure that the embargo provides us with the best posture for a peace-making effort,’ he suggested. ‘That is what matters. The war should be stopped. There should be a cease-fire and we should get down to negotiations about a settlement.’ Britain, he said to mocking laughter, had not broken any contracts with the Israelis, merely ‘suspended them’.
In the ensuing vote, seventeen Tories followed Labour and the Liberals into the opposition lobby, while 15 Labour MPs backed Heath. All but two of the Tories’ nine Jewish MPs – Sir Keith Joseph and Robert Adley – voted against the government, while six of the rebels – Hendon North’s John Gorst, Tom Iremonger in Ilford North, Andrew Bowden in Brighton Kemptown, Michael Fidler in Bury and Radcliffe, Geoffrey Finsberg in Hampstead and Sir Stephen McAdden in Southend East – represented marginal seats with Jewish constituents. A further thirty to forty Tory MPs abstained.
The rebellions on both sides of the chamber reflected divisions which were playing out behind closed doors. When Wilson demanded the party impose a three-line whip, he met, he later remembered ‘fierce resistance’ in the Shadow Cabinet, with the shadow Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, particularly objecting. Referring to Jenkins’ passionate pro-Europeanism (which had led him to resign as deputy leader in 1971), Wilson barked back: ‘Look, Roy, I’ve accommodated your f–king conscience for years. Now you’re going to have to take account of mine: I feel as strongly about the Middle East as you do about the Common Market.’
Wilson took a small measure of revenge on the Labour rebels, sacking one of their number –Andrew Faulds – from the frontbench. Faulds, Wilson said, had engaged in ‘uncomradely behaviour’ by suggesting that Jewish MPs had dual loyalties.
The Cabinet Splits
In the Cabinet, too, there had been sharp exchanges over the Prime Minister’s approach. The discussions, Lady Thatcher remembered, were difficult and not helped by the fact that while Douglas-Home defended his policy ‘courteously’, Heath was characteristically abrasive. ‘Ted [exercised] a rigid determination to control an issue which – as he saw it – would determine the success or failure of our whole economic strategy.’ Sir Keith Joseph, her close ally and the only Jewish member of the Cabinet, were, in turn, ‘intensely irritated’ by the government’s policy.
In Cabinet, the dissenting ministers – Hailsham, Joseph and Thatcher – made the case that, strategically and morally, Britain was taking the wrong approach. The supply of ammunition to Israel was becoming a ‘crucial problem’. It was not in Britain’s national interests to see Israel’s ‘power to resist’ weakened and the Arab countries ‘which were Soviet clients’ strengthened. If Britain was willing to sell arms in times of peace and contracted to supply spare parts in ammunition, ‘we were in honour committed to continue that supply if war broke out’. There was ‘no justification’, the ministers argued, for the Arabs’ breach of the ceasefire and it was ‘wrong that we should appear to be tolerant of it’.
Mrs Thatcher worried in particular over the politics of the government’s position. Public opinion, she said, was ‘uneasy’ and there was sympathy, beyond the Jewish community, for Israel, especially as the arms embargo was seen as ‘particularly damaging’ to the Israelis and imposed simply because the government was afraid for ‘our oil supplies’. And then, in a clear reference to the mood in Finchley, she reported that ‘acute problems’ were likely to arise in some areas which risked creating ‘a separateness on the part of the Jewish community which would have very serious long-term consequences’.
Heath was unwilling to give any ground. It was important, he argued, to ‘keep the matter in proportion’. Any supplies from the UK would be minimal compared to those now flowing from the US and fears that Israel would be destroyed were ‘exaggerated’.
When the Cabinet discussed the matter again two days later, both the Prime Minister and his opponents appeared to have entrenched their positions. Mrs Thatcher warned, minuted the Cabinet Secretary, that Britain’s policy had ‘lost [the] support of everyone, especially [the] young. Must say no question of Israel being wiped off [the] face of the earth’. Referring, as is practice in the Cabinet, to Mrs Thatcher’s ministerial department, Heath let slip his own prejudices, responding: ‘Don’t accept Educ’s view of public opinion. It’s a Jewish-inspired press campaign.’ In an attempt to end the in-fighting, Heath told the Cabinet that he was having a note circulated telling them the public line they must take.
Mrs Thatcher was, however, right about public opinion in general and the rising political temperature in areas with a large Jewish population in particular. Polls showed backing for Israel at ten times the level of support for the Arab states, while, two weeks into the war, the Joint Israel Appeal announced that 90,000 Britons had donated money and 300 meetings had been attended by 20,000 people.
In her memoirs, Lady Thatcher recalled how she anxiously followed news of the conflict hour by hour. As MP for Finchley, she wrote, ‘I knew at first hand what the Jewish community in Britain felt about our policies.’
The peril faced by Israel, combined with the seeming indifference to its fate displayed by the British government, provoked a wave of anger, which was especially evident in many areas of North London. Thousands of posters of Golda Meir appeared in the windows of Jewish homes; money poured in to fundraising appeals; and synagogues set up blood banks to provide Israel with urgently needed supplies. Charismatic rabbis, such as Leslie Hardman in Hendon and Saul Amias in Edgware, denounced Britain’s position.
Opposition to the government’s policy also spilled out from the ranks of local Conservative activists in the area. Eight Jewish Tory councillors on Barnet council issued a statement making clear their ‘unanimous and united stand against the uneven-handed embargo detrimental to the State of Israel enacted by the Government … an action we cannot defend since we hold that nothing is politically right which is morally wrong’. The chair of Barnet’s Tory councillors publicly admitted he was considering resigning over the government’s policy.
On the day Douglas-Home delivered a statement in Parliament on the issue, 200 people attended a protest meeting of the Finchley Anglo-Israel Friendship League. They unanimously passed a resolution which assailed ‘the failure of the Government to denounce the aggressors’ and urging it to give ‘political and diplomatic support to Israel’.
In parliament, Tory MP John Gorst, who represented Hendon North – like Finchley, a seat with a large Jewish population – reflected the anger of his constituents. He accused the government of attempting to ‘creep off the pages of history into frightened neutrality’, suggesting it had reduced Britain to ‘a latter-day Sweden or Switzerland in world affairs’ by giving in to the ‘the oily blackmail of the Arab states’. Writing to Douglas-Home, Gorst said that his Jewish constituents found the government’s position difficult to ‘understand or tolerate’. Gorst’s stance, and that of his fellow Tory rebels, argued the Finchley Times, might not make him popular with the government, but would meet with ‘almost 100 per cent approval’ from local voters.
There were also, though, occasional manifestation of the undercurrent of antisemitism which had once been prevalent in certain sections of the Tory party. The chair of Finchley’s Young Conservatives, for instance, denounced Tory rebels for supposedly putting the interests of the Jewish state above their own country. Jewish MPs, he declared, would ‘put Britain first only where Israel is not directly affected’. He went on to liken the Jewish state – ‘an expansionist and imperialist nation’ – to Nazi Germany. The ensuing local storm was swiftly ended when the Tories effectively forced the young man’s resignation.
While Mrs Thatcher obeyed the whip, she strained the bounds of collective responsibility by revealing locally her disapproval of the government’s policy and publicly pledging ‘to oppose the ban’.
Some saw her position as disingenuous – her opposition did not, apparently, extend to resigning from the Cabinet – but it was forged by a mixture of principle and political necessity. And, as she had warned around the Cabinet table, the Tories did not escape political punishment from Jewish voters for Heath’s actions.
That was clear within days of the war ending, when the party faced a by-election in the solidly Tory coastal town of Hove. The Conservatives had held the seat – which had a sizeable Jewish population of around 5,000 – with a majority of over 18,000 at the 1970 general election. Buoyed by a string of by-election wins, the Liberals – who had not even fielded a candidate when voters there last went to the polls – decided to attempt to capitalise on both the government’s growing economic difficulties and Jewish anger at its failure to support Israel. The party’s pro-Israel leader, Jeremy Thorpe, thus made a play for the normally reliably Tory Jewish vote by declaring in a campaign speech in Hove that the government’s Middle East policy was ‘all too reminiscent of Munich’. In desperation, the Tory candidate, Tim Sainsbury, was forced to disown his own government’s policy, branding it ‘not even-handed and actually prejudicial to the security of Israel’ On polling day, the Liberals slashed the Tory majority and came within 5,000 votes of winning the seat. Sainsbury’s words – together with lingering distrust of the Young Liberals’ avowed anti-Israel stance – appeared to have done just enough to shore up enough of the Jewish vote to ward off defeat.
Within weeks, however, the Tories’ faced a much bigger test, defending seats with much slender majorities, in the general election that Heath had opted to call. Among them were a number of seats where Jewish voters could prove decisive if they decided to vote against Heath.
Indeed, the evidence suggests that Mrs Thatcher’s fears about the possibility of a Jewish backlash were not only realised, but potentially helped to contribute to Heath’s narrow defeat.
In Finchley itself, Mrs Thatcher’s majority was nearly halved, falling to just below 6,000; the lowest it had yet been. As it had across the country, the Liberal vote in Finchley rose sharply. But to what degree had Mrs Thatcher’s Jewish constituents punished her for the government’s stance towards Israel the previous autumn? Forty years later, her Liberal opponent, Laurence Brass, remained convinced that ‘the small success in Finchley that I had in the first election of 1974 was due to the big Jewish following that I had’, itself a consequence, he believed, of Heath’s policy.
That theory is born out by a comparison with the result in Hendon North, where Gorst was richly rewarded by his Jewish constituents for leading the Tory rebellion against the government. A poll of Jewish voters in the seat carried out by the academic Geoffrey Alderman showed that, despite Labour attacking the Tories for failing to stand by Israel, 16 per cent of those who had not voted Conservative in 1970 intended to switch to help re-elect Gorst. In the highly marginal seat, that represented a boost of 2,000 votes. Among the defectors was Saul Amias, the minister of Edgware Synagogue and a lifelong socialist, who publicly endorsed Gorst and – citing his support for Israel – signed his nomination papers. Defying the predictions, Gorst held the seat and publicly acknowledged that the Jewish vote had proved critical.
Moreover, the 1.1 per cent, anti-Conservative swing in Hendon North was half that in Greater London as a whole. By contrast, in Finchley, Mrs Thatcher saw an above average swing against her of 3.2 per cent.
Elsewhere in the country, there were similar results with Jewish voters punishing Tory MPs who had stood by Heath and rewarding those who had defied him. In Leeds North East, Joseph, Mrs Thatcher’s fellow Cabinet sceptic, suffered a swing against him more than three times higher than that which hit the Tories in the city as a whole. In Ilford South and Middleton & Prestwich, Conservatives who had abstained in the vote on the embargo were swept away, while in Ilford North Tom Iremonger, like Gorst, made a virtue of defying the government and standing by Israel. Even faced with a strong Jewish Labour opponent, Millie Miller, he managed to survive. In marginal Paddington, in central London, Marc Wolfson attributed his defeat on Jewish anger at the arms embargo.
Four decades on, this somewhat shameful chapter in Britain’s relations with Israel, and the domestic fallout it provoked, is now largely forgotten. That, of course, is not the only reason why it is difficult to envisage a time when the Labour leader of the Opposition was Israel’s most loyal and ardent friend – and one who was indeed even able to make political capital, and win Jewish support, as a result of it.