White Papers on Palestine

views updated


British policy statements about mandatory Palestine issued from 1922 to 1939.

The British government, which ruled Palestine from 1917/1918 to 1948 under a League of Nations mandate, issued periodic policy statements called white papers that related to the tensions and recurring violence between the Arab and Jewish communities there.

Two precursors to the series of white papers on Palestine were the Palin Commission Report (1 July 1920) and Haycraft Report (Command 1540, 21 October 1921), which concluded that the Palestinian Arabs' feelings of "hostility to the Jews were due to political and economic causes, and connected with Jewish immigration and with their conception of Zionist policy" as leading to a Jewish state in which Palestinians would be subjugated.

Subsequently, the Churchill White Paper of June 1922 (Command 1700) attempted to placate both communities. It stated that the Jewish national home existed by right, but that the Palestinians should not be subordinated to the Jewish community. It declared that all Palestinians were equal before the law and described the Jewish national home as simply "a center in which the Jewish people as a whole may take, on grounds of religion and race, an interest and a pride." Jews would have the right to immigrate to Palestine, but their immigration must not exceed "the economic capacity of the country at the time to absorb new arrivals." Moreover, London aimed to establish full self-government in Palestine in "gradual stages" and would hold elections for a legislative council. The white paper thus reassured Arabs that they would have a political role and that Jewish im migration would be limited. Nonetheless, the Arab Executive objected to the reaffirmation of the Balfour Declaration (1917), which had supported the establishment of a Jewish home in Palestine, and rejected the legislative council as not guaranteeing majority rights. The World Zionist Organization criticized the limits on immigration and the proposed legislative council, which it wanted to postpone until the Jewish population was larger.

The colonial secretary issued the next white paper (Command 3229) on 19 November 1928, as Muslim-Jewish tension escalated over mutual claims at the Western (Wailing) Wall in Jerusalem. The white paper affirmed that no benches or screens could be brought to the wall by Jews, since they had not been allowed during Ottoman rule. Tension escalated, leading to Palestinian attacks against Jews at the wall and in several other towns in August 1929.

Four white papers issued in 1930 tried to defuse the conflict. The Shaw Commission of Inquiry (Command 3530, 30 March 1930) found that Jewish immigration and land purchases were immediate causes of "the Arab feeling of disappointment of their political and national aspirations and fear for their economic future," and that these were the underlying causes of the violence. The report declared that the government must issue clear statements safeguarding Arab rights and regulating Jewish immigration and land purchase. Another white paper (Command 3682, 27 May 1930) reaffirmed those findings, welcomed an investigation by an international commission of the conflicting claims to the Western Wall, and recommended appointing a special commission to assess the problems facing landless Palestinian peasants and the prospects for expanded agricultural cultivation.

Sir John Hope-Simpson's report, dated 30 August 1930 (Command 3686), was published simultaneously with the Passfield White Paper (Command 3692) of 21 October 1930. Hope-Simpson recommended a drastic reduction in the volume of Jewish immigration because of insufficient cultivable Palestinian land and widespread Palestinian unemployment. He criticized the Jewish National Fund, the Zionist Organization's land-purchasing agency, for forbidding Jews from reselling land to Arabs and banning Arab laborers on Jewish farms. The white paper concurred that stricter controls should be placed on Jewish immigration and land purchase, and assertedfor the first timethat the British government had obligations "of equal weight" to both communities and that it must renew the effort to establish the legislative council proposed in 1922.

The Arab Executive was pleased with these British policy recommendations because they acknowledged Arab concerns. But Chaim Weizmann, head of the Jewish Agency, resigned in protest when the Pass-field White Paper was issued. London then backtracked. Zionist officials helped to draft a letter, signed by Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, to Weizmann on 14 February 1931 that expunged all damaging aspects of the Passfield White Paper and upheld the primacy of the government's promises to the Jewish community. Mollified, Weizmann withdrew his resignation, but the MacDonald "Black Letter," as it became known, infuriated the Arabs.

The white paper of 17 May 1939 (Command 6019) followed three years of Arab rebellion. The Peel Commission had recommended on 7 July 1937 that territorial partition between Arab and Jewish states was the only solution because Arab and Jewish aspirations were irreconcilable. Nonetheless, the Woodhead Partition Commission concluded on 9 November 1938 that partition was not feasible. The British government then convened the London Conference, which brought together the Jewish Agency, Arab governments, and Palestinian Arabs in lengthy but fruitless discussions. Afterwards, London issued a white paper that repudiated partition and proposed to create self-governing institutions over a ten-year period. Authority over the eventual independent state would be shared by its Arab and Jewish citizens. The white paper limited Jewish immigration to 75,000 over five years; subsequent immigration would require Arab approval. Jews' purchase of land would be limited in some parts of Palestine and forbidden in others.

Jewish and Palestinian Arab nationalisms were too intense and too antagonistic for this plan to succeed. The Zionists viewed the Balfour Declaration as a pledge to establish a Jewish state. When the white paper of 1939 withdrew the Peel Commission's partition proposal, their reaction was strongly hostile, particularly because the restrictions on immigration occurred just as Jews sought to flee Nazi persecution in Europe. Palestinians were relieved that London had set aside partition and would restrict Jewish immigration and land purchase, but were skeptical that London would fulfill its pledges. The MacDonald white paper remained mostly unimplemented, apart from the enforcement of immigration restrictions.

see also churchill white paper (1922); haycraft commission (1921); macdonald, ramsay; palin commission report (1920).


Government of Palestine. A Survey of Palestine, Vol. 1. Jerusalem: Government Printer, 1946.

Ingrams, Doreen. Palestine Papers, 19171922: Seeds of Conflict. New York: George Braziller, 1972.

Lesch, Ann Mosely. Arab Politics in Palestine, 19171939: The Frustration of a Nationalist Movement. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1979.

Stein, Kenneth W. The Land Question in Palestine, 19171939. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.

ann m. lesch