White Paper of 1939

White Paper of 1939
1939 White Paper cmd 6019.djvu
1939 White Paper cmd 6019
CreatedMay 1939
Ratified23 May 1939[1]
PurposeStatement of British policy in Mandatory Palestine

The White Paper of 1939[note 1] was a policy paper issued by the British government under Neville Chamberlain in response to the 1936–39 Arab Revolt. Following its formal approval in the House of Commons on 23 May 1939,[2][note 2] it acted as the governing policy for Mandatory Palestine from 1939 until the British departure in 1948, the matter of the Mandate meanwhile having been referred to the United Nations.[3]

The policy, first drafted in March 1939, was prepared by the British government unilaterally as a result of the failure of the Arab-Zionist London Conference.[4] The paper called for the establishment of a Jewish national home in an independent Palestinian state within 10 years, rejecting the idea of partitioning Palestine. It also limited Jewish immigration to 75,000 for 5 years, and ruled that further immigration was to be determined by the Arab majority (section II). Restrictions were put on the rights of Jews to buy land from Arabs (section III).

The proposal did not meet the political demands proposed by Arab representatives during the London Conference and was officially rejected by the representatives of Palestine Arab parties acting under the influence of Haj Amin Effendi al-Husseini while more moderate Arab opinion represented in the National Defence Party was prepared to accept the White Paper.[5]

Zionist groups in Palestine immediately rejected the White Paper. There was a campaign of attacks on government property, which lasted for several months. On 18 May a Jewish general strike was called.[6]

Regulations governing land transfers and clauses relating to immigration were implemented although at the end of the five-year period in 1944, only 51,000 of the 75,000 immigration certificates provided for had been utilized. In circumstances where Jewish refugees from Europe were fleeing violence and persecution, the White Paper's limits were relaxed and legal immigration was permitted to continue indefinitely at the rate of 18,000 a year.[7] Key provisions were ultimately never to be implemented, initially because of cabinet opposition following the change in government, and later because of preoccupation with World War II.[8]


London Conference, St. James's Palace, February 1939. Arab Palestinian delegates (foreground), left to right: Fu'ad Saba, Yaqub Al-Ghussein, Musa Al-Alami, Amin Tamimi, Jamal Al-Husseini, Awni Abdul Hadi, George Antonious, and Alfred Roch. Facing the Arab Palestinians are the British, with Sir Neville Chamberlain presiding. To his right is Lord Halifax, and to his left, Malcolm MacDonald

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 Ottoman Caliphate had declared a military jihad in support of the Germans and it was hoped that an alliance with the Arabs would quell the chances of a general Muslim uprising in British-held territories in Africa, India, and the Far East.[9] Great Britain had also negotiated the Sykes-Picot Agreement, agreeing to partition the Middle East between Britain and France.

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 Palestine. 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, in accordance with Article 25 of the Mandate, 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) were allowed to enter the country freely.

Following Adolf Hitler's rise to power, a growing number of European Jews were prepared to spend the money necessary to enter Palestine. The 1935 Nuremberg Laws stripped the 500,000 German Jews of their citizenship. Jewish migration was impeded by Nazi restrictions on the transfer of finances abroad (departing Jews had to abandon their property), but the Jewish Agency was able to negotiate an agreement allowing Jews resident in Germany to buy German goods for export to Palestine thus circumventing the restrictions.

The large numbers of Jews entering Palestine[further explanation needed] led to the 1936–39 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 issues. The Peel Commission recommended in 1937 that Palestine be partitioned into two states, one Arab the other Jewish. In January 1938, the Woodhead Commission explored the practicalities of partition. The Woodhead Commission considered three different plans, one of which was based on the Peel plan. Reporting in 1938, the Commission rejected the Peel plan primarily on the grounds that it could not be implemented without a massive forced transfer of Arabs (an option that the British government had already ruled out).[10] With dissent from some of its members, the Commission instead recommended a plan that would leave the Galilee under British mandate, but emphasised serious problems with it that included a lack of financial self-sufficiency of the proposed Arab State.[10] The British Government accompanied the publication of the Woodhead Report by a statement of policy rejecting partition as impracticable due to "political, administrative and financial difficulties".[11] It proposed a substantially smaller Jewish state, including the coastal plain only. An international conference (Évian Conference) convened by the United States in July 1938, failed to find any agreement to deal with the rapidly growing number of Jewish refugees.

London Conference

In February 1939 the British called the London Conference to negotiate an agreement between Arabs and Jews in Palestine. The Arab delegates attended on condition that they would not meet directly with the Jewish representatives, which would constitute recognition of Jewish claims over Palestine. So the British government held separate meetings with the two sides. The conference ended in failure on March 17.[12]

In the wake of World War II, the British believed that Jewish support was guaranteed or unimportant. However they feared that the Arab world might turn against them. This geopolitical consideration was, in Raul Hilberg's word, "decisive"[13] to British policies. Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia were independent and allied with Britain.