The White Paper of 1939

We Americans live in an Anglophile culture. This affects our perception of history.  One of the great tragedies, or crimes - depending on who is asked - of the 20th century, can be laid at the feet of the English.  This is either omitted from our history books or downplayed into insignificance. 

From 1936 to 1939, the Arabs in the Palestinian Mandate revolted against British rule.  The fighting was savage, and the British acted criminally in the revolt's suppression.  One thing was made clear: the Arabs were not going to acquiesce peaceably to continued Jewish immigration into the land. 

Britain was in a quandary.  While the revolt was seemingly over, the Arabs were seething with rage.  They wanted England, and the Jews, out of Arab territory.  With World War II looming, the last thing the British needed was a wide-ranging Arab revolt.  Egypt's Suez Canal, Iraq's oil, and  Palestine's oil pipeline were vital to the British.  Rankling the Arabs was not wise.

The Arabs had good reason to be angry at British duplicity.  But it would soon become apparent that British duplicity would extend to the Jews.

Britain tried to alleviate the problem in Palestine by setting up the Peel Commission in 1937, which suggested partitioning off an astoundingly small Jewish state in the north of present-day Israel.  The land to be allotted to the Jews would have been less than one half what the U.N. would recommend ten years later in 1947.  Both Arabs and Jews rejected the Peel Commission's suggestion, though obviously for different reasons.

Of course, the British passed themselves off as disinterested noble guardians stuck between two irreconcilably irrational opponents, but what seems to have been their chief interest was protecting the Iraq-Haifi oil pipline.  The Arabs regularly targeted the pipeline during the Arab Revolt of 1936-1939, while British and Jewish forces sought to protect it.  One suspects that if the pipeline had not ended in Haifa, the Jews would have been left on their own to the mercy of the Arabs.

By 1939, with war looming, Britain could not afford to lose that pipeline.  Something had to be done to pacify the area.

It an amazing reversal of prior commitments, England issued the MacDonald White Paper of 1939, which severely limited Jewish immigration to Palestine for another five years, after which immigration would be halted altogether.  This would preserve a two-thirds Arab majority in Palestine.  The policy reversal turned on a loophole in the Balfour Declaration and the San Remo Documents which promised to guarantee Arab civil rights.  It was an escape clause -- quite legal, but quite despicable.

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.

Needless to say, the Jews were stunned into disbelief.  This could not have come at a worse time.  Jews were scrambling to flee Europe.  No nation would accept them.  Palestine was their only hope, and Britain had just closed the door.

The White Paper then went on to promise an independent Arab Palestinian state within 10 years.  The Zionist dream had been ended, at the stroke of a British bureaucrat's pen.  All quite legal.

Why?  Because Britain was terrified of another major Arab revolt, which would play into Hitler's hands.  The Arabs had to be appeased, and the Jews had no other option but to support Britain.  The decision was cold, calculating, and ruthless.

When the war started, Ben Gurion said, "We will fight the war as if there were no White Paper, and we will fight the White Paper as if there were no war."

These were proud words but of little consequence.  Ben Gurion could do nothing.  One can only imagine what was going through his head near the end of the war, as reports came in of mass murder, while the British were still turning away Jewish refugees.

The policy was ruthlessly efficient.  The Arabs were placated.  There was no major revolt in Palestine during the war despite the mufti's radio calls for jihad.  Why should there have been?  The British had given the Arabs almost everything thing they wanted.  When the war was over, they were guaranteed an Arab state.  In fact, contrary to popular belief, some Palestinian Arabs actually joined the British Army during the war.  Why not?  They were sitting pretty.

Meanwhile, the British were assiduously turning away Jews.  Early in the war, Hitler tried to deport Jews to Palestine -- not out of the goodness of his heart, but to trigger an Arab revolt.  After the SS Patria incident, where Britain refused to allow Jews to land, Hitler took note of British attitudes towards the Jews.

The Holocaust had not been Hitler's first choice for the Jewish Problem -- he had preferred to dump the Jews on his enemies -- but since even Palestine was closed, why not kill the Jews?  Britain's closure had damned the Jews of Europe to the ovens.

By 1944, Jewish terror groups were attacking high British officials over this policy.  In 1944, Lord Moyne was assassinated.  There were attempts to go after Harold MacMichael, the commissioner of Palestine, as well.  He narrowly escaped.  The Irgun and Stern Gang wantonly killed innocent civilians; these were terrorists no less than modern-day Islamic thugs, though not as irrational.

But let's not deny that Britain ruthlessly cut off the Jews of Europe from their only hope of escape, either.  Britain indeed was an accessory to the Holocaust.  The Arabs, who claim innocence in all of this, had made sure the door was shut to Jews in their time of need.  The Arabs are far from innocent, even independent of, and apart from, the mufti's alliance with the Nazis.

The Arabs claim that there should have been no partition in 1947 because the majority of the population in Palestine were Arabs.  Indeed, that is true, but had the British let the Jews in between 1939 and 1945, there would have been an overwhelming Jewish majority in Palestine in 1947. 

A majority-Jewish Palestine would have suppressed any Arab military response and prevented the creation of the West Bank.  A heavily Jewish Israel would not have needed to take severe actions to ensure their survival during their war of independence.  With a clear Jewish majority, population transfers of Arabs would not have been required.  The ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from 1947 to 1949 would not have been necessary. 

Hindsight is always 20/20.   Had the British not written the White Paper in 1939, an extended Arab revolt may have given the Mideast to Hitler.  I doubt it, but one cannot be sure.  More likely, the extra Jewish population could have garrisoned the area.

This is no minor issue.  Though rarely mentioned in our U.S. media, most Israeli Jews consider the British accessories to the Holocaust.  The degree of bitterness I have seen in Israeli Jews towards the British is incomprehensible to most Americans, who have been fed a sanitized version of British actions.  During the  1982 Falklands War, Menachem Begin was so bitter at the British that he armed the Argentines.

When the world tells you about Israeli abuses of Arab Civil Rights -- and they do occur -- place it in context.  The Jews are determined to never be put in that position again.

We can't undo the past, but America should not take the path the British did in 1939.

Mike Konrad is the pen name of an American who is not Jewish, Latin, or Arab.  He runs a website,, where he discusses the subculture of Arabs in Latin America.  He wishes his Spanish were better.

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