The White Paper: 80 Years Later
Eighty years ago, an ominous and devastating policy was enacted by the British government that would wreak 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 needed 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 in search of a solution to the vast differences between them. 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 of the partition of the land of Israel was rejected. Jewish immigration would be restricted to 15,000 per year over the next five years, and land purchases by Zionists would be severely restricted as well. Any further immigration after the five years would be determined by the Arab majority, which would essentially terminate the Zionist enterprise.
This move by the British came as the culmination of over 20 years of intermittent waves of Arab terror, and at the end of three years of devastating Arab riots in British Mandatory Palestine.
The fact that the British Mandate over Palestine was a responsibility 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 was now of minimal importance. Anyway, who would hold the British accountable when their respective nations also had imposed severe quotas on Jewish immigration?
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, and 300,000 Palestinian Jews attended protests, in which 120 Jews were wounded during clashes with the British police. At one protest, the 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 land while the opportunity still existed.
On May 21, protests in the United States began, where thousands of Jews protested in cities throughout the country. 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.”
In the US, Senator William King of 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 Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to fulfill the Balfour commitments. Messages were also directed to US President Franklin Roosevelt and Secretary Hull to intercede.
On May 27, there were protests throughout Latin America. On May 28, an ill-fated ship carrying German Jewish refugees, the St. Louis, arrived in 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.
Eighty years later, we recall those tragic, traumatic, and trying times.
Larry Domnitch is an author and instructor of History at Touro College.