British Imperialist Interests and the White Paper of 1939

British imperialism was still a prominent factor in early twentieth century politics, and it is undoubtedly important in the history of Jewish Zionist aspirations. Talks of a permanent home for the Jews were on the table for decades prior to the establishment of Israel in 1948. However, tensions between Jews and Arabs were deadly as early as 1921. Following a series of riots that demonstrated the depth of Arab hostility towards Zionism, Britain became involved with the creation of the Jewish National Home (1923-1929).[1] Although this effort saw no mass violence, extreme amounts of hostility were encountered as tensions between the Allies and German forces advanced; it became clear that Britain had to resolve the issues surrounding Zionism in Palestine.[2] This had to be done in a way that was sensitive to the Jews, while simultaneously satisfying to the Arabs whose help they desperately needed in their fight against Germany. This conflict resulted in the British Government’s formation of the White Paper in 1939, a policy that regulated Jewish immigration to Palestine, gave the Arabs control of immigration after a certain time, and set the boundaries for a proposed Jewish state.

The impact of Britain’s involvement with Zionism in the Arab world was highly exemplified in the Jewish National Home. The formation of the National Home in Palestine was a result of the Balfour Declaration (1917). According to Jacob Metzer, this granted Britain the power “to promote the formation of a Jewish national home and the establishment of the British mandate in Palestine after the war provided… [for the] renewal of Jewish nation building.”[3] At first, the Balfour Declaration called for a national existence (in the form of the National Home) without an actual state. It did much more than set the boundaries for the Jews, but created a sort-of alliance between them and the British. It allowed the Jews to trust them and they believed that Parliament would ultimately respect their interests and help them in the years to come, ensuring their happiness and safety. This territory was not allowed to threaten broader imperial interests.[4] Therefore, the conflict that would eventually be followed closely after the publication of the White Paper of 1939 arose after the British Cabinet in 1923 concluded that “it could not promote a Jewish national home, yet ensure a peaceful outcome that would protect the Arab population” while sustaining total peace in Palestine.[5] Given that the British had bound to protect Arab interests years earlier, as well as vowing to protect Zionists, they were pressed to make sure that they made a move that would ultimately benefit their imperial interests. The result of this initial dilemma resulted in the Cabinet pressing to promote a Jewish national home.[6] Consequently, since the Arabs and Jews were so politically and socially divided, this move resulted in the British departure from Palestine in 1948, twenty-five years later.[7]

The fact that Britain was acting heavily on their alliance with the Arabs as their driving force towards resolving tensions in Palestine was no secret. The imperial desires of the British Government were clear even two years earlier than the revival of the idea of a prospective Jewish national home. Herbert Samuel, the 1st High Commissioner of Palestine wrote in a letter to Chaim Weizmann in August, 1921:

It is quite true that a great many, I might say almost all, of British officials in Palestine are not sympathetic to a Zionist policy which would be detrimental to the Arabs, and are not prepared to carry out with any goodwill a policy which is likely to result in a regime of coercion.[8]

This was in response to questions raised following a series of riots in Jaffa in May, 1921, which revealed the depth of Arab hostility towards Zionism. This put a heavy stress on Parliament, realizing they actually had to take action with both sides of the conflict, while simultaneously remain a friend of both. According to Jewish Historian Bernard Wasserstein, objections of the Zionist Commission to the suspension of Jewish immigration were supported as well as a firmer policy in response to the violence was also favored by Wyndham Deedes, the British High Commissioner of the British Mandate of Palestine.[9] However, Wasserstein writes that after the riots of 1923, it was made clear by Deedes that Zionism could succeed only if the Arabs were conciliated and that the responsibility for bringing about this seclusion was invested equally in both the British and the Zionists themselves.[10] Therefore, the idea for a Jewish state was, as believed by many, inevitable. In many ways, it really was.

To try to aide to peace as tensions rose in Europe, a White Paper was introduced in 1930, but it failed to satisfy both parties as it imposed crippling restrictions on Jewish land purchase and development.[11] This made it incredibly difficult for Jews to immigrate to the land, as they would not be able to purchase land or develop communities. It also allowed for Palestine to be limited to an additional 20,000 settlers.[12] Still, over the course of the next decade, Arab violence towards Jews in Palestine did not stop, but greatly escalated.

Zionist settlement in Palestine became the steering factor leading up to the White Paper of 1939. The Balfour Declaration, although only preceding the White Paper by just over twenty years, was drawn in a completely different world than the 1939 White Paper. Additionally, the Balfour Declaration did in fact address a certain type of spirit. It addressed a spirit of hope and optimism for a peaceful future by establishing a home for the Jews in the Middle East to avoid hostility from the Arabs, as well as over-all anti-Semitism that seemed to be growing at the time. Theodor Herzl, a Jewish journalist, firmly asserted that establishing a Jewish state was the only way to avoid aggression and resentment.[13] However, once Adolf Hitler’s plans to dominate Europe became clear, the British spirit in handling the situation in the Middle East drastically changed and became one driven by their strategic and imperialist nature. On top of this, the spirit of the debated region also drastically changed before the White Paper was implemented. After all, the Jews had a sense of what was happening or about to ensue, and they left or escaped German territories or prospective territories if they were able to. The only place to go seemed to be Palestine.

Jews therefore immigrated to Palestine in alarming numbers following Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. Clearly, this resulted in Jewish land purchases and resulted in a great resistance by Arabs. By 1936, this had influenced many different Arab political parties to level or eliminate most of their extreme political differences to give way to a quickly rising sense of nationalism. This unified sense of patriotism offered Arab Palestinians the chance to focus on Jewish immigration, and consequently British control over the region. Tensions were secured and irreversible by this point and socially the people were completely divided. Following the murder of two Jews on April 15, 1936, Jews retaliated, and thus the Arab revolt ensued as a result of the tensions. According to Baruch Kimmerling and Joel S. Migdal, “there were some claims that the act was purely criminal, but it was probably engineered for political purposes.”[14] Nevertheless, the revolt put an extreme strain on British forces in Palestine. This revolt demonstrated sheer acts of terrorism on both sides and lasted until 1939. It solidified British support for Jewish national home, and they had hoped eventually that a White Paper would put an end to the violence as well as the stress on British forces.

However, Britain was faced with a problem. On one hand, they had promised the Jews that they would support their cause, especially through the Balfour Declaration, which inspired a great sense of optimism among them. On the other hand, with Europe in turmoil and facing the possibility of London becoming dominated by Nazi German forces, British interests changed drastically. They also had hoped desperately that the Arabs would join the allied cause, which they ultimately did not. They had hoped for this because they feared that Italy might side with Germany, which they believed might interfere with their interests in the Middle East.

The White Paper eventually was an attempt by the British Government to address both sides of the issue without turning into a common enemy. After all, the Balfour Declaration in 1917 basically trapped the British into supporting Zionism. If they abandoned the Jews, they also abandoned the honor of their empire, which would tarnish their prestige as an imperial power. Therefore, they had to make it work for everyone. The main objective of the White Paper was to permit no further Jewish immigration after five years from 1939. This is how Parliament played devil’s advocate: they gave the Jews the ability to settle, while simultaneously allowing power to shift to Arab control, which Parliament figured would be widely accepted, especially since the Arabs had been protesting British control over the region.

The controversy surrounding this preceded its implementation. As early as January 1938, both Jews and Arabs were expressing their fears and criticisms of the policy and these were often addressed in the media as frequently as possible. The Jews were mainly content with the idea that the British were keeping true to establishing borders for their safety, especially since immigration was a way to save thousands of lives during Hitler’s wrath. However, fears of terrorism rose. According to an article from The Times, the Jews were “drawn to the refusal of the British Government to contemplate the compulsory transfer of Arabs from the Jewish Zone.”[15] This was a fear that was heavily justified. People could not get too worked up over a policy that respected their safety and wishes if they felt it were guaranteed not to work. This itself was partially disastrous because of the fact that even though legally the Jews would be in a Jewish region, they would then have to suffer from terrorism as a result of that. The Jews also hoped that the British would put the White Paper with the proposed borders into action as soon as possible. This was because there were allied nations that offered the Jewish economy assistance as a result of the enthusiasm aroused among Zionists abroad. A speedy establishment of the proposed state would assure them a stable economy while there existed those amused by the idea of a state and who were willing to help see the dream of Israel become a reality. The Arabs on the other hand were completely against it. The Times also reported that the Technical Commission “is not authorized to investigate solutions other than partition, which they [had] already rejected,” meaning that the Arabs were convinced that the British had done absolutely nothing with regard to their interests.[16]

With these fears on the table and with Parliament anxious to take action immediately so to have most attention on the Germans, a conference was called by Britain between Jews and Arabs to discuss the future of Palestine based on their interests. They met around a round table, which became known as The St. James Conference (because it was hosted by The Palace of St. James).[17] The conference was a complete failure. The Arab delegates refused to recognize the Jewish agency and rejected even meeting the Jewish delegates. Once they finally sat together after the British negotiated, the two groups of representatives could not come to any sort of agreement throughout the entire meeting. Subsequently, since some of the delegates even ended up storming out of the conference, the British were left to form the policy themselves.[18] Having to act alone and quickly, the White Paper of 1939 was born, which limited immigration to 15,000 a year for five years, after which it was to stop completely unless the Arabs decided otherwise.[19]

The aftermath of the implementation of the policy exemplifies just how it was rushed and was an ultimate failure. It was passed partially because a lot of pressure was on Parliament because of the immense suffering under the Holocaust; the world was hoping that Britain would provide the save haven for people who still had a glimmer of chance. The pressure to allow immigration was on the shoulders of Parliament and although there were other places they could go, the Zionist movement saw Palestine as the safest place. However, because the British tried to act strategically to please all parties to maintain their status as ‘the good guy’ who they should want to aid at the drop of a hat, the task became impossible to manage. According to Ellen Ravndall, “attempts to stop illegal Jewish immigration caused outcries against British barbarianism.”[20] Not only were they being viewed as barbaric people for not allowing Jews to immigrate to a territory under their control, but also they were physically suffering because of it at the peak of the Second World War. British forces had to fight against Jewish terrorism and they simultaneously had to maintain order to prevent another Arab revolt from happening. All of this collectively took a toll on the British economy and proved, in the long run, that they failed the Jewish-Arab conflict because they considered it a sort-of nuisance that was in the way of a bigger problem.

When Israel became a nation state officially in 1948, one of their first actions as an independent nation was to rescind the rules set by the White Paper. According to Rabbi Irving Miller, the White Paper of 1939 completely rejected the aforementioned spirit of the Balfour Declaration. Miller writes that “it can only be understood in the light of Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasing Hitler, Mussolini, and their Arab ally, the Mufti,” a statement which proves that the British Government was making decisions in the Middle East strategically to help them with in the war against Germany.[21] The White Paper subsequently can be regarded as a prime example of British imperialism. The reason being is that every move they made, from the Balfour Declaration in 1917 and even up to the St. James Conference, was based on maintaining friends who could possibly benefit their own interests in return. The way the policy was organized and forced into the lives of many who depended on Parliament (whether or not by choice) was undoubtedly due to their imperialist nature during the Second World War period.


  • [1] Bernard Wasserstein. The British In Palestine: The Mandatory Government and the Arab-Jewish Conflict 1917-1929. London: Royal Historical Society, 1978. Pages 89 and 139.
  • [2] Ibid, page 140.
  • [3] Jacob Metzer. “Economic Structure and National Goals–The Jewish National Home in Interwar Palestine.” The Journal of Economic History 38, no. 1 (1978): Page 101. Metzer’s article focuses around the politics of creating a state, specifically zooming on economics and long-term goals, however his writing is very clear that British Imperialism held a lot of power in the decades prior to the establishment of the State of Israel.
  • [4] Laura Robson. “Church, State, and the Holy Land: British Protestant Approaches to Imperial Policy in Palestine, 1917–1948.” The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 39, no. 3 (September 2011): 457–477.
  • [5] John Quigley. “Britain’s Secret Re-Assesment of the Balfour Declaration.” Journal of the History of International Law 13, no. 2 (2011): 249–285. Page 250 discusses the British dilemmas faced between 1929-1939 in trying to satisfy both parties.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Wasserstein, page 141. Taken from Samuel to Weizman, 10 Aug. 1921 (CZA Z4/16151). Chaim Weitzman was a Zionist leader, President of the Zionist Organization, and the first President of the State of Israel.
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] Irving Miller. Israel: The Eternal Ideal. New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1955. Page 36. Pages 36-38 describe the creation of the White Paper, and previous White Papers before the one of 1939.
  • [12] Ibid.
  • [13] Ibid, page 32.
  • [14] Kimmerling, Baruch, and Joel S. Migdal. The Palestinian People: A History. Hebrew University, 2003.
  • [15] “The White Paper on Palestine- Jewish Fears and Criticisms.” The Times London. London, January 6, 1938.
  • [16] Ibid.
  • [17] Ronald Zweig. Britain and Palestine During The Second World War. London: The Boydell Press, 1986. Page 4.
  • [18] Ibid., Pages 12-13.
  • [19] Miller, page 37.
  • [20] Ellen Jenny Ravndal. “Exit Britain: British Withdrawal From the Palestine Mandate in the Early Cold War, 1947–1948.” Diplomacy & Statecraft 21, no. 3 (September 14, 2010): 416–433. Page 418.
  • [21] Miller, pages 34 and 32.
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