The 'White Paper': Eighty years later
The 'White Paper': Eighty years later

Eighty years ago, an ominous and devastating policy was enacted by the British government that would bring severe destruction upon the Jewish people.

The MacDonald "White Paper", named after the colonial Foreign Secretary Malcolm Macdonald, was proposed on May 17 and ratified on May 22, 1939. That week, British commitments to facilitate a Jewish state under the terms of the 1917 Balfour Declaration were essentially nullified. The White paper also denied Jews desperately seeking refuge as the Nazi threat emerged.

On November 9, 1938, the British Government announced its intention to invite representatives of the Arabs in Palestine and nearby countries to confer with Jewish representatives at a London conference to be held between Arabs and Zionists in search of a solution to the vast differences between them. From the start, the proposed meetings were a futile venture as the Arabs refused to even sit with the Jews. Separate meetings were held and they ended, predictably, with no resolution.

Under the Macdonald "White Paper", the Peel Commission’s 1937 recommendation for the partition of the land was rejected. The Arabs had already rejected it. Jewish immigration would be restricted to 15,000 per year over the next five years, and land purchases by Zionists would be severely restricted. Any further immigration after the five years would be determined by the Arab majority (the Mandate was intended to be a trust held by Great Britain until Jews became the majority at which point they would be granted their homeland), which would essentially terminate the Zionist enterprise.

This move by the British came as the culmination of over twenty years of intermittent waves of Arab terror and at the end of three years of devastating Arab riots in British mandatory Palestine. The initially proposed borders of a Jewish State by the Balfour Declaration would then be incrementally downsized until there would be no Jewish State at all. The demands of the opponents of Zion were met.

The fact that the British Mandate over Palestine was a responsibility that was granted by an outside party, the League of Nations at San Remo in 1922, and therefore did not exclusively grant carte blanche to the British to act as they pleased meant little, since that organization by the 1930’s was of minimal importance. Anyway, who would hold the British accountable when their respective nations also had imposed severe quotas on Jewish immigration? These are the  years Jews could have fled Europe and survived, but they had nowhere to go.

Senator William King Utah called the White Paper a “Betrayal of the Jews.” New York Congressman, Hamilton Fish, from the House floor, called the British vote a “shocking repudiation of the Balfour pledges.”
In section one, paragraph two, line one, of the White Paper, the following line sums up British intentions,  “His Majesty’s government believe 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. “

The Jewish Agency swiftly responded with indignation. “The Jewish people regard this policy as a breach of faith and a surrender to Arab terrorism…….It is in the darkest hour of Jewish history that the British Government proposes to deprive the Jews of their last hope and to close the road back to their homeland.” The following day, a general strike was called for Jews in Palestine. That day, 300,000 Jews in Palestine attended protests, in which 120 Jews were wounded during clashes with British police. At one protest, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, Yaakov Herzog, burned a copy of the White Paper. The protests continued over the following weeks.

Chaim Weizmann called it a “Death sentence for the Jewish people.” David Ben Gurion famously stated that Zionists “would fight the war as if there was no White Paper and fight the White Paper as if there was no war.”

Emergency funds were sent to Palestine by the Jewish National Fund to purchase lands while the opportunity still existed.

Three days later, on May 21, protests in the United States had begun. Thousands of Jews protested in cities throughout the US. At the same time, 230 American Jewish leaders urged Secretary of State Cordell Hull to refuse recognition of the White Paper.

On May 22, the House of Commons held a debate on a motion that the White Paper was a violation of the terms of the Mandate. It was defeated by a vote of 268 to 179. Among those who voted for it was the soon to be Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Another supporter of the motion, former Prime Minister, Lloyd George who had a significant role in the promulgation of the Balfour Declaration, called the White Paper an “act of perfidy.”  Parliament member, James Armand de Rothschild, delivered a stern rebuke during the debate in Parliament, in which he warned, “For the majority of Jews who go to Palestine, it is a question of migration or physical existence” He continued, “for the Arabs it is the question of the addition to their present vast territories.”

British Conservative Party member, Leopold Amery during the debate, expressed his opposition and spoke of the Jews of Palestine as a force with whom to be reckoned, “They are composed largely of younger men who have undergone military training and are quite capable of defending themselves, of holding their own, if we only allow them……Does my Right Honorable friend believe that these people will be contended to be relegated to the position of a statutory minority, to be denied all hope of giving refuge and relief to their tortured kinsfolk in other countries, that they will wait passively until, in due course, they and the land they created are to be handed over to the Mufti?” (i.e. Haj Amin Al-Husseini)

Senator William King Utah called the White Paper a “Betrayal of the Jews.” New York Congressman, Hamilton Fish, from the House floor, called the British vote a “shocking repudiation of the Balfour pledges.”

Numerous appeals were sent to Chamberlain, to fulfill the commitments of Balfour. Messages were also directed to US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and US Secretary of State Cordell Hull to intercede.

On May 27, there were protests throughout Latin America.

On May 28, the ill fated ship carrying German Jewish refugees, the St. Louis arrived at Havana Cuba soon to be turned away.

Hundreds of desperate Jews seeking entry into Palestine were stopped and detained near the cities of Netanya and Haifa.

Revisionist Zionist leader, Zev Jabotinsky, who was exiled from Palestine by the British ten years earlier for his outspoken criticism of the Mandate, strongly advocated what he termed “free immigration,” encouraging Jews to find any way to enter Palestine.

Jabotinsky was critical of the Jewish Agency, (Zionist establishment) predicting that their response would not be substantive. He proposed an armed revolt to evict the British that would take place in October. The plan was abandoned as war broke out in September 1939.  

His warnings ten years earlier that the British mandate would betray the promises of Jewish Statehood in Palestine came to full fruition.

Eighty years later, we recall those tragic, traumatic, and terrible times.