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1990 May 2 We
Margaret Thatcher

Speech at Women’s International Zionist Organisation Centenary Lunch

Document type:public statement
Document kind:Speech
Venue:Guildhall Banqueting Suite, City of London
Source:Thatcher Archive: transcript
Journalist:-
Editorial comments:Between 1220 and 1445.
Importance ranking:Minor
Word count:2265
Themes:Parliament, Civil liberties, Commonwealth (South Africa), Taxation, Trade, Education, Family, Foreign policy (Africa), Foreign policy (Middle East), Foreign policy (USSR and successor states), Religion/Morality, Voluntary sector and charity, Women

Madam Chairman, your Excellencies, my [ Immanuel Jakobovits] Lord Chief Rabbi, my Lady Mayoress and distinguished guests,

First may I say thank you to all the previous speakers for the wonderful way they have given a marvellous start to this very successful lunch. You first [ Lily Sieff] Lily, it was a terrific speech before lunch. Thank you for inviting us to this great occasion and thank you for reminding us of the transformation which has come over East/West relations recently. Thank you for reminding us Winston Churchill was such a great friend of Israel and for the enormous part he took in the freedoms which we enjoy today. It so happens that it is fifty years this month since Winston Churchill came to no. 10 Downing Street, and we have so very much to thank him for, the freedom lasted and endured. Thank you also for inviting me to this great occasion and for the very kind words with which you introduced me.

May I also thank Vivien Duffield for the marvellous decision which she has just announced to endow a day centre in Sderot, and name it after me. That is a wonderful way to mark this occasion and I know that you will all want to join me in thanking her very warmly indeed for her generosity. And I look forward very much to visiting the centre one day.

Rebecca Sieff

Madam Chairman, the Jewish people must surely be the most talented people in proportion to their numbers in history. Their only possible rivals might be the ancient Greeks, or more accurately the Athenians. Indeed you will probably remember something which Dean Inge once said: "the nations which put mankind most in their debt have been the small states—Israel, Athens, Florence, Elizabethan England".

But one great difference between classical Athens and the Jewish people is the enormous part which women have played in Jewish history. You can trace in the bible a tremendous tradition of strong and courageous Jewish women: Ruth , Naomi , Rebecca . In Israel's more recent history no single figure stands out more strongly than Golda Meir.

And most of us are familiar with the image of the Jewish mother: and I look at Rebecca Sieff's beautiful elegant portrait on the front of this brochure. But no shrinking violet she. The idea that beautiful elegant women were shrinking violets is a myth. She was a lioness. And you remember what Rudyard Kipling says, "the female of the species is more deadly than the male". No, she was a lioness at heart, a woman who knew exactly what she wanted for her husband and children, who upheld family values, and who was known for her strength of character and steadfastness.

Rebecca Sieff, the centenary of whose birth we are here to celebrate, fitted very much into that tradition. All contemporary accounts show her to have been an outstanding person: vivid, brilliant, passionate: one of those rare people who light up every cause and every occasion with which they are associated.

The range of causes which she espoused was remarkable. She was a great supporter of Mrs Pankhurst, so I have a great deal to thank[fo 1] her for personally, for without her I would not have been here. She was a moving spirit in the "Women for Westminster" organisation. In the 1930s she headed a committee which rescued Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria. She helped to found the Israel philharmonic orchestra and what subsequently became the Weizmann institute, one of the greatest scientific research institutes in the world.

And can I just say that so many of her great qualities came out in her son, beloved [ Marcus Sieff] Marcus, who is with us today and whom we all honour and admire for everything he does.

Nothing moved Rebecca Sieff more fervently than her desire to help the Jewish cause and Jewish women. One thinks of those marvellous words in the Old Testament, in the book of psalms: "how shall we sing the lord's song: in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem: let my right hand forget her cunning."

These words must have inspired her to work to re-establish the Jewish home, which culminated in the Balfour declaration. And they must have guided her, too, when she set up the Federation of Women Zionists after the first world war, which then became the great organisation which we know today: the Women's International Zionist Organisation.

The work of WIZO

You are Rebecca Sieff's heirs, both in your commitment to the cause of Israel and to the interests of women everywhere. With 20,000 members in this country and a quarter of a million volunteers worldwide, you represent all that is best in the Jewish spirit: — Your vigorous sense of community. — Your resolve as women to take a full part in the affairs of that community—and I understand there are seventy-nine women members of the board of deputies of British Jews, which is a higher proportion than we have in Parliament. I came across some words of your present Chairman, which sum up the role of women very well: "Practical work gets done by women. They don't waste time. If there's a job to do, a project to organise, they get on with it." This echoes something I said last year: "if you want someone to make a speech, ask a man; if you want to get something done, ask a woman". Can I just assure you: that doesn't apply only to Jewish women—its just the same in government.

— There is, too, your dedication to charity and all good works. I enormously admire the Jewish people's belief in creating wealth through your own efforts, in sharing it with others, and the recognition that greater wealth brings greater responsibility. I know that WIZO carries on that tradition by the support which it gives to innumerable good causes[fo 2] benefiting women and children in Israel. And by your constant encouragement and support for young people, you daily shape the future. You have never limited your efforts to Jewish people alone. Just as Rebecca Sieff spoke up for the interests of all women—so you support activities which benefit women of all communities in Israel.

Let me today say "thank you" for all the good work you do, and for the benefits that that work brings to women everywhere. We remember Rebecca Sieff's example. She never stopped working for the causes in which she believed. She helped create Israel and, by her example, she helped women everywhere.

Women in society

We women still have much to do in this country. It is difficult to believe we achieved full equality of voting rights only within the life-time of some of us here today. Its not so very long since Nancy Astor became the first woman to take a seat in Parliament—and showed with her great style and confidence—that one does not have to be masculine to succeed in a man's world.

I must tell you we need more women in government: they bring commonsense to it and the experience of running a family. But that needs more women in Parliament—and that in turn means more women must put themselves forward as candidates.

Women must be able to choose their own lives for themselves. If we wish to be lawyers, doctors, businesswomen, engineers, scientists, we should have the same opportunities as men—and increasingly we do: far more solicitors, doctors and chartered accountants are women than ten years ago. But, and may I say fortunately, there are many women who want to devote themselves mainly to raising a family and running a home and they should have that choice too. Very few jobs can exceed in importance and satisfaction that of being the mainstay of the family and of the community.

And I hope you will all be very pleased with the new arrangements which the government have just brought into effect for the separate taxation of married women. That is a great step forward in securing our privacy and our independence. Yes, do applaud.

Israel and the world

Madam Chairman, I know these are anxious times for Israel as indeed they are for all of us. So much progress has been made in these two years towards resolving the divisions and hostilities which have been with us in Europe for over forty years. We are seeing free elections in Eastern Europe—and one incidental benefit is that those countries are busy establishing relations with Israel.

We are seeing other conflicts and problems round the world beginning to ease and find solutions: in central America, particularly with the election of Mrs Chamorro in Nicaragua: in[fo 3] South Africa with the very courageous steps being taken by President De Klerk—and I am sure we would all want to express our hopes and good wishes for the talks on which the South African government and Mr Mandela are embarking this very day.

Sadly these more hopeful developments have not been fully reflected in the Middle East, and I know that will be a matter of particular concern to all of us who are friends of Israel. Indeed some of the recent developments—and one thinks particularly of the evidence of Iraq's attempts to obtain parts for highly sophisticated and devastating weapons—these events are a matter of very great concern to all of us. And I am sure that everyone here would wish to pay tribute to the outstanding work of the customs and excise in intercepting certain shipments to Iraq. Their success comes from immense skill, patience and dedication.

But Israel does have cause to rejoice—as do we all—over the freedom to emigrate now being given to Soviet Jews. I remember when I spoke in Israel during my visit there nearly four years ago. I said that I believed persistence in this just cause would be rewarded. Well, we did persist and we are now seeing the reward, with the much greater numbers allowed to leave the Soviet Union and go to Israel.

Many people have played their part in that, and none more so than the women's campaign for Soviet Jewry in this country, and we congratulate them on their efforts.

But I hope very much that the great satisfaction which we all feel at this tremendous achievement will not be diminished by a policy of settling Soviet Jews in the occupied territories. That would tarnish the efforts which many of us have made in good faith to help secure freedom to emigrate for the Jewish people of the Soviet Union. And we recognise that that would not have come about save for the outstanding efforts of President Gorbachev in the Soviet Union. And of course for the stauchness of the West in the defence of freedom and for the values in which we believe.

The Jewish community

Madam Chairman, our happiness over the freedom won for Soviet Jews is a sign of the way we feel about the enormous contribution which our own Jewish community in Britain makes to our lives. I have had several occasions in the last year or two to pay tribute to that, but I always do so gladly because the contribution is so great and so outstanding. You have provided leadership and inspiration in every field of endeavour. You have provided it all, you have always been guided by a desire to contribute to the community, and not just to benefit from it.

One thinks of the contribution:

In business—and we cannot celebrate the centenary of a member of the Sieff family without mentioning what everyone knows is one of my very favourite firms: Marks & Spencer.

One thinks of the contribution in the arts and sciences.[fo 4]

Of the contribution in the intellectual and moral field—how very grateful we are for the work of the Chief Rabbi, Lord Jakobovits: not just for his moral and spiritual leadership, great as it is to peoples of all nations everywhere, but for the fluency and integrity of his interventions on a wide range of national and international issues in the House of Lords. His is invariably one of the most penetrating contributions, one which provides new insight and ways of looking at problems, from which we can all learn.

Hand in hand with the great contributions to our national life, have gone the many personal links between Britain and Israel, established by men and women who have loved both countries. There have been so many of them, including of course Marcus and Lily Sieff, and none more distinguished than Israel's first President, Dr. Chaim Weizmann.

With it goes a tremendous admiration for all that has been achieved in Israel, and above all for the spirit of Israel's people: pioneering, brave, resourceful, determined: an example of how indomitable will can overcome almost any problem.

You, the members of WIZO, have done so much both for Britain and for Israel, and we thank you without reserve. And we pray that Israel will be able to build peace in its region, so that all its talents and energies can be fully realised in a better life for all the people of the region.

Conclusion

Madam Chairman, on my desk at Chequers, where I do so much work and think up so many speeches, there is a silver inkstand on which is emblazoned the following words (I translate them because they are in Latin—thank goodness I was taught Latin at school; we had a very good curriculum in those days) it says: "to stand on the ancient ways; to see which is the right and good way, and in that way to walk".

That was Rebecca Sieff's way. Her eyes and her heart were opened and she shared her gifts with us all. We honour her today. May we choose in the future to walk in the way in which she showed us. We honour Rebecca Sieff for her contribution to our past. May we repay her by contributing likewise to our future.