His mother Elisabeth and her elder brother Gottlieb were born in Budapest to woollen merchant Leopold Sapier (or Saphir) and his wife Maria (née Hertzberg). Between Gottlieb’s birth in 1840 and Elisabeth’s about a year later this Jewish couple embraced Christianity, and after Sapier’s death while the children were still young his widow Maria moved with them to Constantinople, where she married a Hungarian-born physician, Dr Johann Moritz Leitner (1800–61), who had also forsaken Judaism for Christianity and was working as a “medical missionary” in the Ottoman domains for the London Society for Promoting Christianity amongst the Jews. Leitner adopted Gottlieb and Elisabeth, who took his surname.
However, Amery, whose Anglican baptism in India was performed by the Rev. Henry Aaron Stern, yet another converted Jew or “Hebrew Christian” in the Leitners’ circle, was fully alive to his Jewish heritage and frequently exerted his influence on behalf of Jewish causes. It’s been suggested that he hid his Jewishness in order to escape antisemitism at Harrow (where he was a brilliant student) and for the sake of his career within the Conservative Party – he was very close to his mother in view of his parents’ divorce and she was ambitious for him, probably advising that any hint of foreign origin could damage his prospects.
In his autobiography he says – probably truthfully – that although he had heard of Herzl, he was “completely unaware” that a Zionist movement existed until he heard about it from enthusiastic gentile Zionist Sir Mark Sykes during the First World War. To quote Professor Rubinstein, whose article I cite below,
“Amery supported Zionism for two main reasons. He hoped to see the establishment in Palestine of ‘a prosperous [Jewish] community bound to Britain by ties of gratitude and interest. Secondly, he believed that the creation of a Jewish state would greatly diminish anti-semitism which is founded on fears of mass Jewish migration or upon instinctive hostility to an apparently international community. Amery’s views here were very close to the thought of the classical theorists of early Zionism, who believed that anti-semitism stemmed largely from the wholly ‘abnormal’ socio-economic and political structure of European Jewry, which would radically alter the negative perception of Jews by the majority. Amery here showed a sympathetic affinity to the nationalistic basis of Zionism rare in Britain. While Amery hailed the ‘spiritual forces which have always inspired the Zionist movement’, his support for Zionism was chiefly based on the fact that it was a nationalistic movement which aimed to normalize the status of Jews, and had little basis in any Judaic religious conception of Zionism. In addition, he obviously had very little affinity to the ideology of socialist Zionism to which many Zionist pioneers adhered. Amery’s Jewish nationalism also closely paralleled his British nationalism.”
As Dominions Secretary (1925-29) he had responsibility for the Palestine Mandate, robustly supporting the growth and development of the Yishuv – Weizman recalled Amery’s “unstinting encouragement and support” and that Amery “realized the importance of a Jewish Palestine in the British imperial scheme of things more than anyone else. He also had much insight into the intrinsic fineness of the Zionist movement”. In 1937, shortly after testifying before the Peel Commission on the future of Palestine, Amery helped to organise a dinner in tribute to the wartime Jewish Legion at which his friend Jabotinsky was guest of honour. Amery became an increasingly vociferous critic of the British government’s dilution of its commitments to the Jews of Palestine in order to appease the Arabs, and fulminated in the Commons against the notorious White Paper of 1939, which set at 75,000 the maximum number of Jews to be admitted to Palestine over the ensuing five years. “I have rarely risen with a greater sense of indignation and shame or made a speech which I am more content to look back upon”, he remembered. And he became an arch-critic of Chamberlain and Appeasement.
www.socialaffairsunit.org.uk/blog/archives/001524.php/ ) Clearly, he had his uncle’s gift for languages.
As Professor Rubinstein states, in the article cited below, it’s regrettable that Amery was not given the post of Colonial Secretary by Churchill, for if anyone could have prevented a deterioration in relations between the British government and the Zionist movement it was he. In June 1944 Weizmann met him to ask his advice regarding “the monstrous German blackmailing offer to release a million [Hungarian] Jews for ten thousand lorries and other equipment, failing which bargain they proposed to exterminate them. He wanted my advice and all I could suggest was that he should write to Winston [Churchill] urging publication of this infamous piece of blackmail and a declaration by him and Roosevelt that if the threat materialised just revenge would be exacted, not only on the actual perpetrators but on all the heads of the German Government”.
(This blogpost is based on William Rubinstein’s article “The Secret of Leopold Amery”, Historical Research, vol. 73, June 2000, pp. 175-96)