White Paper of 1939

White Paper of 1939

The White Paper of 1939, also known as the "MacDonald White Paper" after Malcolm MacDonald, the British Colonial Secretary who presided over it, was a policy paper issued by the British government under Neville Chamberlain in which the idea of partitioning the Mandate for Palestine was abandoned in favour of creating an independent Palestine governed by Palestinian Arabs and Jews in proportion to their numbers in the population by 1949 (section I). A limit of 75,000 Jewish immigrants was set for the five-year period 1940-1944, consisting of a regular yearly quota of 10,000, and a supplementary quota of 25,000, spread out over the same period, to cover refugee emergencies. After this cut-off date, further immigration would depend on the permission of the Arab majority (section II). Restrictions were also placed on the rights of Jews to buy land from Arabs (section III).


"See: British Mandate of Palestine for further details"

In 1914, during World War I, the British had made two promises regarding territory in the Middle East. Britain had promised the Hashemite governors of Arabia, through Lawrence of Arabia and the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence, independence for a united Arab country covering Syria in exchange for their supporting the British against the Ottoman Empire. The Islamic Caliphate declared a military jihad and it was hoped that the alliance with the Arabs would quell the chances of a general Muslim uprising in British held territories in Africa, India, and the Far East. Great Britain had also negotiated the Sykes-Picot Agreement, agreeing to an international regime under Britain and France. At the same time, British leaders had an interest in Zionism arising from widespread influence of Evangelism and belief in Jewish economic influence. David Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister during World War I had worked closely with the Zionist movement and was an Evangelical preacher. [ See Jill Hamilton, "God, Guns and Israel: Britain, the First World War and the Jews in the Holy City," Sutton 2004 ] This, and a variety of strategic factors, such as securing Jewish support in Eastern Europe as the Russian front collapsed, culminated in the Balfour Declaration, 1917, with Britain promising to create and foster a Jewish national home in the Palestinian region. These broad delineations of territory and goals for both the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, and Arab self determination was approved in the San Remo conference.

In June 1922 the League of Nations approved the Palestine Mandate with effect from September 1923. The Palestine Mandate was an explicit document regarding Britain's responsibilities and powers of administration in Palestine including 'secur [ing] the establishment of the Jewish national home', and 'safeguarding the civil and religious rights of all the inhabitants of Palestine'. In September 1922, the British government presented a memorandum to the League of Nations stating that Transjordan would be excluded from all the provisions dealing with Jewish settlement, and this memorandum was approved on 23 September. Due to stiff Arab opposition and pressure against Jewish immigration, Britain redefined Jewish immigration by restricting its flow according to the country's economic capacity to absorb the immigrants. In effect annual quotas were put in place as to how many Jews could immigrate, while Jews possessing a large sum of money (500 Pounds) were allowed to enter the country freely.

Following the rise of Adolf Hitler and other anti-Semitic regimes in Europe, a growing number of European Jews were prepared to spend the money necessary to enter Palestine. The 1936 Nuremberg Laws made the 500,000 German Jews stateless refugees. Jewish migration was limited by Nazi restrictions on transfer of finances abroad, but the Jewish Agency was able to negotiate an agreement whereby the Germans would allow Jews to use their funds to buy German goods for export to Palestine thus circumventing the restrictions.

As a result large numbers of Jews began entering Palestine, and this was one of the primary causes of the 1936–1939 Arab revolt in Palestine. Britain responded to the Arab revolt by appointing a Royal Commission, known as the Peel Commission which traveled out to Palestine and undertook a thorough study of the problems. The Peel Commission recommended in 1937 that Palestine be partitioned into two states, one Arab the other Jewish. In January 1938, the Woodhead Commission went to Palestine to explore how partition would work on the ground. The report of the Woodhead Commission was published on November 9 1938. The idea of partition was upheld, but the proposed Jewish state was to be substantially smaller, receiving only the coastal plain.

In March 1938 Hitler annexed Austria making its 200,000 Jews stateless refugees. In September the British agreed to Nazi annexation of the Sudetenland making a further 100,000 Jews refugees.

In July 1938 an international conference convened by the USA, failed to find a solution to the growing Jewish refugee problem.

In February 1939, the St. James Conference (also known as the Round Table Conference of 1939) convened in London; since the Arab delegation refused to meet with its Jewish counterpart, to recognize them, or even use the same entrances to the building, proposals were put by the government separately to the two parties, who however were not able to agree to any of them. The Conference ended on March 17 without making any progress.

One key calculation affecting British thinking at this point was that, in the event of another world war, Jewish support for the West was guaranteed. It was important therefore to secure unambiguous support from the Arab world, whose sympathies were by no means clear. This geopolitical consideration was, in Raul Hilberg's words, 'decisive'. [ Raul Hilberg, "The Destruction of the European Jews", (1961) New Viewpoihnts, New York 1973 p.716] Egypt, Iraq and Saudi-Arabia were independent and allied with Britain, which feared Fascist propaganda being broadcast to the Middle-East, primarily by Italian radio. Britain also directly governed large Moslem territories in the Middle East and India.

Pro-Nazi regimes were on the rise across Europe (Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria) and anti-Semitic government existed in Austria, dedicated to either expelling their Jewish populations or restricting their rights. Few countries were prepared to accept Jewish immigrants and Britain feared that millions of Jews would soon be seeking to enter Palestine Fact|date=October 2007 which, it was thought, could not support them.

The League of Nations, whose authority lay behind the Mandate, no longer possessed any international force as more and more regimes ignored its rulings.

In September 1939 (after the White Paper was issued) Nazi Germany occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia making another 100,000 Czech Jews stateless.

White Paper of 1939, content

The White Paper of 1939 was published on May 17 1939, and its main points were:
*Section I. The Constitution: It stated that with over 450,000 Jews having now settled in the mandate, the Balfour Declaration about "a national home for the Jewish people" had been met and called for an independent Palestine established within 10 years, governed jointly by Arabs and Jews:

"His Majesty's Government believe that the framers of the Mandate in which the Balfour Declaration was embodied could not have intended that Palestine should be converted into a Jewish State against the will of the Arab population of the country. [...] His Majesty's Government therefore now declare unequivocally that it is not part of their policy that Palestine should become a Jewish State. They would indeed regard it as contrary to their obligations to the Arabs under the Mandate, as well as to the assurances which have been given to the Arab people in the past, that the Arab population of Palestine should be made the subjects of a Jewish State against their will."
'The objective of His Majesty's Government is the establishment within 10 years of an independent Palestine State in such treaty relations with the United Kingdom as will provide satisfactorily for the commercial and strategic requirements of both countries in the future. [..] The independent State should be one in which Arabs and Jews share government in such a way as to ensure that the essential interests of each community are safeguarded.'

*Section II. Immigration: Jewish immigration to Palestine under the British Mandate was to be limited to 75,000 for the first five years, and would later be contingent on Arab consent:
'His Majesty's Government do not [..] find anything in the Mandate or in subsequent Statements of Policy to support the view that the establishment of a Jewish National Home in Palestine cannot be effected unless immigration is allowed to continue indefinitely. If immigration has an adverse effect on the economic position in the country, it should clearly be restricted; and equally, if it has a seriously damaging effect on the political position in the country, that is a factor that should not be ignored. Although it is not difficult to contend that the large number of Jewish immigrants who have been admitted so far have been absorbed economically, the fear of the Arabs that this influx will continue indefinitely until the Jewish population is in a position to dominate them has produced consequences which are extremely grave for Jews and Arabs alike and for the peace and prosperity of Palestine. The lamentable disturbances of the past three years are only the latest and most sustained manifestation of this intense Arab apprehension [...] it cannot be denied that fear of indefinite Jewish immigration is widespread amongst the Arab population and that this fear has made possible disturbances which have given a serious setback to economic progress, depleted the Palestine exchequer, rendered life and property insecure, and produced a bitterness between the Arab and Jewish populations which is deplorable between citizens of the same country. If in these circumstances immigration is continued up to the economic absorptive capacity of the country, regardless of all other considerations, a fatal enmity between the two peoples will be perpetuated, and the situation in Palestine may become a permanent source of friction amongst all peoples in the Near and Middle East.'
"Jewish immigration during the next five years will be at a rate which, if economic absorptive capacity permits, will bring the Jewish population up to approximately one third of the total population of the country. Taking into account the expected natural increase of the Arab and Jewish populations, and the number of illegal Jewish immigrants now in the country, this would allow of the admission, as from the beginning of April this year, of some 75,000 immigrants over the next four years. These immigrants would, subject to the criterion of economic absorptive capacity, be admitted as follows: For each of the next five years a quota of 10,000 Jewish immigrants will be allowed on the understanding that a shortage one year may be added to the quotas for subsequent years, within the five year period, if economic absorptive capacity permits. In addition, as a contribution towards the solution of the Jewish refugee problem, 25,000 refugees will be admitted as soon as the High Commissioner is satisfied that adequate provision for their maintenance is ensured, special consideration being given to refugee children and dependents. The existing machinery for ascertaining economic absorptive capacity will be retained, and the High Commissioner will have the ultimate responsibility for deciding the limits of economic capacity. Before each periodic decision is taken, Jewish and Arab representatives will be consulted. After the period of five years, no further Jewish immigration will be permitted unless the Arabs of Palestine are prepared to acquiesce in it."

It should be noted that some of the claims made in this section were not true. Jewish migration had resulted in a major economic boom in Palestine and non-Jews (Arabs) were beginning to migrate into the country as a result. [ Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry, A Survey of Palestine (London: His Majesty's Stationery Office, 1945-46), vol. 1, p. 211. "the "boom" conditions in Palestine in the years 1934-36 led to an inward movement in Palestine particularly from Syria. The depression due to the state of public disorder during 1936-39 led to the return of these people and also a substantial outward movement of Palestinian Arabs"] Jewish migration was exclusively funded from taxation paid by the Jewish population, whose (ample) taxes were also used to fund the British forces in Palestine and to help improve economic conditions for the Arab population. After 1945, Jewish aid made Palestine the largest single importer of dollars in the entire British Empire (outside of Britain). [ The Times 19/12/46 page 3 & 27/2/47 page 5. Britain’s total exports to the USA in 1947 were about three times the amount Palestine was receiving): see Statistical Abstract for the Commonwealth Volume 71, London 1951 page 8.]

*Section III. Land: Previously no restriction had been imposed on the transfer of land from Arabs to Jews, while now the "White Paper" stated:

"The Reports of several expert Commissions have indicated that, owing to the natural growth of the Arab population and the steady sale in recent years of Arab land to Jews, there is now in certain areas no room for further transfers of Arab land, whilst in some other areas such transfers of land must be restricted if Arab cultivators are to maintain their existing standard of life and a considerable landless Arab population is not soon to be created. In these circumstances, the High Commissioner will be given general powers to prohibit and regulate transfers of land.'

The "White Paper" was passed in the House of Commons by 268 to 179 in favour.

In March 1940 the British High Commissioner for Palestine issued an edict banning Jews from purchasing land in 95% of Palestine. [ Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry - Appendix IV see http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/anglo/angap04.htm]

Reactions and effects

The policy of restricted Jewish immigration set limits on the ability of those Jews who intended to flee persecution in Europe by immigrating to Palestine. Measures taken to block illegal immigration violating the quotas culminated in several incidents. ("See:Struma (ship), Patria disaster, and Exodus (ship)".) After the Second World War it led the British Government to detain large numbers of Jews in British camps on Cyprus.

During the Parliamentary debate, Lloyd George described the White Paper as an act of perfidy while Winston Churchill voted against the government in which he was a minister. [ Manchester Guardian 24/5/39 pages 12 & 14 ] In a leader the Manchester Guardian described it as 'a death sentence on tens of thousands of Central European Jews' [ Manchester Guardian 21/5/39 page 8. ] The Liberal MP James Rothschild stated during the parliamentary debate that 'for the majority of the Jews who go to Palestine it is a question of migration or physical extinction.' [ House of Commons Debates, Volume 347 column 1984]

The supervising authority of the League of Nations, the Permanent Mandates Commission abstained unanimously from endorsing the White Paper, though four members thought the new policy was inconsistent with that mandate. [Raul Hilberg, "The Destruction of the European Jews," (1961) New Viewpoints, New York 1973 p.717 n.7]

Some supporters of the National Government were opposed to the policy on the grounds that it appeared in their view to contradict the Balfour Declaration. Several government MPs either voted against the proposals or abstained, including Cabinet Ministers such as Leslie Hore-Belisha, as well as Winston Churchill.

The provisions of the "White Paper" were opposed both by the Jews and the Arabs in Palestine.

The Arab Higher Committee argued that the independence of a future Palestine Government would prove to be illusory, as the Jews could prevent its functioning by withholding participation, and in any case real authority would still be in the hands of British officials. The limitations on Jewish immigration were also held to be insufficient, as there was no guarantee immigration would not resume after five years. In place of the policy enunciated in the White Paper, the Arab Higher Committee called for 'a complete and final prohibition' of Jewish immigration and a repudiation of the Jewish national home policy altogether. According to historian Benny Morris writing in The New Republic, in his book Army of Shadows, Palestinian Collaboration with Zionism, 1917-1948, historian Hillel Cohen argues that Hajj Amin al-Husayni "astonished" the other members of the "Arab Higher Committee" by turning down the "White Paper," an arrangement entirely to the advantage of the Arabs. Al-Husayni, according to Cohen, turned the advantagewous proposel down for the entirely selfish reason that "it did not place him at the helm of the future Palestinian state." [ The Tangled Truth by Benny Morris, The New Republic, May 07, ‘08 [http://www.tnr.com/story.html?id=0e100478-298c-438c-a994-e1800474ad19] ]

After the outbreak of war in September 1939, the head of the Jewish Agency for Palestine David Ben-Gurion declared: 'We will fight the White Paper as if there is no war, and fight the war as if there is no White Paper.' [The Brigade by Howard Blum, p.5. In 1946, a yiddish song written in the Yishuv by Jacob Jacobs ad Isadore Lilian included these lyrics: "Tserisn muz vern dos vayse papir, In der fremd viln mir mer nit zayn. Habeyt mishomyim ureey, Groyser got kuk arop un ze, Vi men yogt undz, vi men plot undz, Got, her oys undzer geshrey." "They don't care about Jewish anguish, The White Paper must be torn, We don't want to be away from our home anymore." (As described in "Palestine in Song," "YIVO News" No. 204, Winter 2008, p.15]

By the autumn of 1943, it was discovered that only 44,000 of these certificates had been issued, and the British authorities ruled that the remaining 31,000 passes could be used immediately. By the end of the following year, the whole quota had been exhausted.

At the end of World War II, the British Labour Party manifesto promised to rescind the White Paper and establish a Jewish state in Palestine. In fact, however, the Labour Foreign Minister, Ernest Bevin persisted with the policy and it remained in effect.

After the war, the determination of many Holocaust survivors to reach Palestine led to large scale illegal Jewish migration to Palestine. British efforts to block these clandestine operations encountered violent resistance by Jewish terrorist groups operating outside the Zionist mainstream.

From October 1946, the British Government, under the 'severest pressure' from the USA, relented and allowed 1,500 Jewish migrants a month into Palestine, equal to the total amount the United States still imposed on all immigrants from Eastern Europe. [Raul Hilberg "The Destruction of the European Jews", (1971) New Viewpoints ed.New York, 1973 p.729] . The gesture was in deference to the recommendations of the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry. ["Report of the Anglo-American Committee" (1946) Cmd.6808 pp.65-66] Half of those admitted came from the prison camps for illegal immigrants in Cyprus due to fears that a large Jewish presence in Cyprus would lead to an uprising there. [New York Times 11/08/46 pg 35, UK Foreign Office document 371/52651 ]

Notes and references

* [http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/mideast/brwh1939.htm British White Paper of 1939] at Yale University
* J. C. Hurewitz, "The Struggle for Palestine", Schoken Books, 1976

ee also

*Arab-Israeli conflict
*Churchill White Paper, 1922
*1936-1939 Arab revolt in Palestine
*Proposals for a Palestinian state
*Army of Shadows, Palestinian Collaboration with Zionism, 1917-1948

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