With the public release of the Balfour Declaration on November 2, 1917, Great Britain’s formal policy towards Palestine became the eventual establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people.” However almost 22 years later, Colonial Secretary Malcolm MacDonald rescinded that policy when he proclaimed the British White Paper on May 17, 1939, which was first published in 1938. The White Paper, which imposed land and immigration restrictions on the Jewish community, had a lasting impact on relations in the Middle East.
Why did England changed its policy? The surging threat of Nazi Germany caused an increase in Jewish immigration to Palestine, which resulted in Palestinian Arab violence. In an attempt to counter the violence and reach a peace agreement, British authorities met with Arab and Jewish representatives in February and March 1939. These meetings known as the St. James Conference, provided to be futile. The Arab representatives refused to sit in the same room as the Jewish representatives. No agreement was reached and British policy towards Palestine changed following the Conference.
British justifications for the altered stance stemmed from the importance of Palestine and the Middle East to the security of England. Of these interests in the Middle East, the most important were the communication channels with India and Asia, the Suez Canal, the British naval base at Alexandria, and oil in Iraq. MacDonald also feared angering Muslims in India and in other Middle Eastern countries with whom England had friendly relations. As the possibility of war with Germany increased, the British may have believed appeasing the Arabs was in their best interests.
The new policies on land and immigration were the most significant aspects of the White Paper. The document rejected the possibility of partition, stating that was an impractical solution. It proclaimed the creation of a Palestinian state within ten years that both Arabs and Jews would lead and inhabit – “a State in which the two peoples in Palestine, Arabs and Jews, share authority in government in such a way that the essential interests of each are secured.” The White Paper also stated that, “it is not part of their [the British Government’s] policy that Palestine should become a Jewish State.
Additionally, the number of Jewish refugees was restricted to 15,000 per year for five years (1940-1944). After the five year period, immigration required Arab permission. The restriction on land acquisition, which was implemented in over 90 percent of the territory, was yet another obstacle to Jewish settlement. The Land Transfer Regulations, which were noted in the White Paper, outlawed the sale of Arab-owned land to Jews in 63.4 percent of the land.
The White Paper devastated Zionists in Palestine and around the world. In a meeting between MacDonald and Chaim Weizmann, who would later become the first president of the State of Israel, Weizmann expressed the feelings that tormented Zionists everywhere, indicting MacDonald of “handing over the Jews to their assassins.” Though some Zionist underground movements intended to respond by resisting British policy, many were unable to realize their goals by the time the war began in 1939. The Yishuv (the organized Jewish community) persevered in the cause, adopting new goals in response to what they viewed as a threat to Jewish survival. These goals were outlined in Aliya Bet (illegal immigration) and the Biltmore Program of May 11, 1942, which reiterated the Zionist purpose of the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
Following the enactment of the White Paper, illegal immigration to Palestine rose significantly. When caught, many illegal immigrants were temporarily interned before being allowed to enter Palestine. Britain, however, deducted the number of illegal immigrants from the annual quota. Ultimately 530,000 Jews immigrated to Palestine legally and illegally before the establishment of the State of Israel in May 1948. About 130,000 of these immigrants entered through Aliya Bet.