Leo’s Legacy: What You Might Not Know About The Balfour Declaration

ImageHere’s another timeless post from my blog’s archives.  This one (originally titled “The Mosque-Founder’s Nephew Who Drafted The Balfour Declaration”, drew a lot of attention, and no doubt surprised many unsuspecting readers, not least those who belong to the mosque concerned.  Although many readers might already have seen this blog, or the article upon which I based it, the facts revealed might still be novel to some.  The article from which I took it has been copied, I notice, onto the anti-Israel Balfour Project website of crusading anti-Zionist English vicar Stephen Sizer and his friends; I expect it gave the folks over there something to think about!

The Balfour Declaration …. in effect the State of Israel’s founding charter – bears the name of Britain’s Foreign Secretary, who signed it in the form of a letter to Anglo-Jewry’s de facto leader Lord Rothschild, who was asked to make its contents known to the Zionist Federation. It was authored not by Balfour but by the political secretary to Lloyd George’s Cabinet, Leopold (Leo) Amery (1873-1955). In October 1917 he was given several unsatisfactory drafts of what became known as the Balfour Declaration and asked to finalise it. To the resulting document the full cabinet (Amery was not a member, his first cabinet post being First Lord of the Admiralty in the “Die-hard” Tory administration of 1922) made only two minor amendments. One altered his promise of a “National home for the Jewish race” – an interesting wording in view of who and what its author was – to “Jewish people”. The other omitted the final seven words of his draft, which spoke of the rights “enjoyed by Jews in any other country who are contented with their existing nationality”.

Leo Amery was, in the words of Professor William Rubinstein, who definitively traced his maternal Hungarian Jewish genealogy a decade ago (attribution at the foot of this post) and first made the full intriguing story known – though perhaps not as well-known as it might be – in essence a “secret Jew”. One of the most prominent British statesmen of his time, known especially as an advocate of imperial preference and Empire unity, the super-patriotic, extremely able Amery (shown here on Lloyd George’s left) may well have become British prime minister had he not stood only five feet four inches in height (at Harrow School he was known as “the pocket Hercules”, for his remarkable upper body strength, and may have been distantly related to Houdini).

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.

Uncommonly gifted as a linguist, Gottlieb Wilhelm Leitner studied Islam at madrassas in Constantinople, and at 15 he was appointed first-class interpreter to the British commissariat. In 1859 became a lecturer in Arabic, Turkish, and modern Greek at King’s College, London, and two years later, aged only 21, was appointed Professor of Arabic with Mohammedan law. In 1862 he became a naturalised British subject, and from 1864-79 worked as a scholar and educationist in India, where his achievements were considerable. It was on his suggestion that Queen Victoria became known as Empress of India, Kaisar-i-Hind. In 1883, following his return to Britain, the Anglican Dr Leitner established the Oriental Institute in Woking, Surrey, and on its premises, in 1889, he founded Britain’s first mosque, the Shah Jahan Mosque – which unlike his institute still exists.  He died ten years later.

His nephew Leo Amery, whose non-Jewish Anglican father – of English West Country stock – was an official in the Indian Forestry Commission (the parents divorced owing to the father’s adultery with a Viennese woman from a family of converted Jews who was probably related to Elisabeth), determinedly concealed his own Jewish connections. In his autobiography, published towards the end of his life, Amery described his mother as one of the “stream of Hungarian exiles” who left their homeland after the failed liberal revolution of 1848, and was careful not to disclose her Jewish origin or birth surname, going so far as to alter to Maurice his middle name Moritz. He shared that name with his mother’s probable uncle Moritz Gottlieb Saphir (1795-1858; pictured), a renowned maskil, satirist and editor in Vienna who described his own Jewish origin as “a birth deformity, corrected by a baptismal operation”. (Incidentally, Elisabeth’s cousin Adolph Saphir, who with his parents converted to Christianity in 1843 through missionaries of the Free Church of Scotland, became a missionary himself, chiefly among London Jewry, as well as a notable Presbyterian minister and theologian. )

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.”

Amery relates in his autobiography that Sykes came out of the full cabinet meeting with the final version of the Balfour Declaration, waving it in the air and excitedly informing a waiting Chaim Weizmann, “It’s a boy!” Amery continues that the “boy [was] destined to a vigorous and stormy youth, some of which I was to play my part in supervising”. As assistant military secretary to the Secretary of State for War, Amery played a pivotal role in the establishment of the Jewish Legion, consisting of three battalions of Jewish soldiers who served, under Britain’s aegis, in Palestine during the First World War and were the forerunners of the IDF. “I seem to have had my finger in the pie, not only of the Balfour Declaration, but of the genesis of the present Israeli Army”, he notes proudly.

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.

When Churchill’s Secretary of State for India, Amery officially attended the opening, in 1944, of the Regent’s Park Mosque, which was intended to serve troops from the Indian sub-continent fighting alongside the Mother Country. Instead of giving, as expected, a predictable ministerial-type address in English, he astonished all present by faultlessly reciting – from memory – the first book of the Quran in classical Arabic, a feat that was still recalled in wonderment over half a century later. (hat tip: William Rubinstein 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”.

Amery was clearly deeply moved by the Holocaust, and in 1950, with his son Julian (1919-96), a well-known Conservative MP and cabinet minister whose wife was a daughter of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, he visited Israel, one of the earliest British public figures to do so after the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1949. He often addressed Jewish and Zionist groups.

By then he had suffered a bizarre personal tragedy. His elder son John was a pro-fascist who found himself in Nazi-occupied Europe when the war broke out, and despite his Jewish ancestry and the fact that his father was a British cabinet minister he made himself available to the Nazi regime and tried to organise a so-called “Legion of St George” to use British prisoners of war to fight the Soviet Union. Obviously deranged, he also made antisemitic broadcasts. He was captured by the British, accused of treason, and (to spare his parents the ordeal of a trial) was the only person in British history to admit to committing treason – he was hanged for the crime in 1945.

(This blogpost is based on William Rubinstein’s article “The Secret of Leopold Amery”, Historical Research, vol. 73, June 2000, pp. 175-96)

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One comment

  1. It is intriguing that Sizer and gang should find the source article interesting. Why?

    Is there something here that they think needs an apology? What exactly?