Eighty years ago, an ominous and devastating policy was enacted by the British government that would cause severe destruction upon the Jewish people.

The MacDonald White Paper, issued by the Secretary of State for the Colonies Malcolm MacDonald, was proposed on May 17 and ratified on May 22, 1939. That week, British commitments to facilitate a Jewish state under the terms of the 1917 Balfour Declaration were essentially nullified. The White Paper also denied Jews desperately seeking refuge as the Nazi threat increased.

On November 9, 1938, the British Government announced their intention to invite representatives of the Arabs in Palestine and nearby countries to confer with Jewish representatives at a London conference in search of a solution to their vast differences. The proposed meetings were from the start a futile venture, as the Arabs refused to even sit with the Jews. Separate meetings were held, and they ended predictably with no resolution.

The MacDonald White Paper rejected the 1937 Peel Commission’s recommendation of the partition of the land. Jewish immigration would be restricted to 15,000 per year over the next five years, and land purchases by Zionists would be severely restricted. Any further immigration after the five years would be determined by the Arab majority, which would essentially terminate the Zionist enterprise.

This move by the British came at the culmination of over 20 years of intermittent waves of Arab terror, and at the end of three years of devastating Arab riots in British mandatory Palestine. The initially proposed borders of a Jewish state by the 1917 Balfour Declaration were downsized until there would be no Jewish state at all. The demands of the opponents of Zion were met.

The fact that the British Mandate over Palestine was a responsibility that was granted by an outside party, the League of Nations at San Remo in 1922, and therefore did not exclusively grant carte blanche to the British to act as they pleased, meant little, since that organization by the 1930s was of little importance. Anyway, who would hold the British accountable when their respective nations also had imposed severe quotas on Jewish immigration during these desperate times for European Jewry facing the increasing threat of Nazism?

The Jewish Agency swiftly responded with indignation. “The Jewish people regard this policy as a breach of faith and a surrender to Arab terrorism… It is in the darkest hour of Jewish history that the British Government proposes to deprive the Jews of their last hope and to close the road back to their homeland.” The following day, a general strike was called for Jews in Palestine. That day, 300,000 Jews in Palestine attended protests, in which 120 Jews were wounded during clashes with British police. At one protest, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yitzchak HaLevi Herzog burned a copy of the White Paper. The protests continued over the following weeks.

Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann called it a “Death sentence for the Jewish people.”

Emergency funds were sent to Palestine by the Jewish National Fund to purchase lands while the opportunity still existed.

Three days later, on Sunday, May 21, protests in the United States had begun. Thousands of Jews demonstrated in cities throughout the US. At the same time, 230 American Jewish leaders urged Secretary of State Cordell Hull to refuse recognition of the White Paper.

On May 22, the British House of Commons held a debate on a motion that the White Paper was a violation of the terms of the Mandate. It was defeated by a vote of 268 to 179. Among those who voted for it was the soon to be Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. Another supporter of the motion, former Prime Minister Lloyd George, who had a significant role in the promulgation of the Balfour Declaration, called the White Paper an “act of perfidy.” Parliament member James Armand de Rothschild delivered a stern rebuke during the parliamentary debate, in which he warned, “For the majority of Jews who go to Palestine, it is a question of migration or physical existence.” He continued, “for the Arabs it is the question of the addition to their present vast territories.”

British Conservative Party member Leopold Amery, during the debate, expressed his opposition to the White Paper and spoke of the Jews of Palestine as a force with whom to be reckoned, “They are composed largely of younger men who have undergone military training and are quite capable of defending themselves, of holding their own, if we only allow them… Does my Right Honorable friend believe that these people will be contended to be relegated to the position of a statutory minority, to be denied all hope of giving refuge and relief to their tortured kinsfolk in other countries, that they will wait passively until, in due course, they and the land they created are to be handed over to the Mufti?” (The violent opponent of Zionism, Haj Amin Al-Husseini).

Senator William King of Utah called the White Paper a “Betrayal of the Jews.” New York Congressman Hamilton Fish, from the House floor, called the British vote a “shocking repudiation of the Balfour pledges.”

Numerous appeals were sent to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to fulfill the commitments of the Balfour Declaration and San Remo conference of 1920. Messages were also directed to US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and US Secretary of State Cordell Hull to intercede.

On May 27, there were protests throughout Latin America.

On May 28, the ill-fated ship carrying German Jewish refugees, the St. Louis, arrived at Havana, Cuba, soon to be turned away.

Hundreds of desperate Jews seeking entry into Palestine were stopped and detained near the cities of Netanya and Haifa.

Revisionist Zionist leader Zev Jabotinsky, who was prohibited from returning to Palestine by the British, while traveling on a speaking tour abroad ten years earlier, for his outspoken criticism of the Palestine Mandate, strongly advocated what he termed “free immigration,” encouraging Jews to find any way to enter Palestine.

Jabotinsky was also critical of the Jewish Agency (Zionist establishment), predicting that their response would not be substantive. He proposed an armed revolt to evict the British that would take place in October. The plan was abandoned as war broke out in September 1939, with the German Blitzkrieg into Poland.

His warnings, ten years earlier, that the British Mandate would betray the promises of Jewish statehood in Palestine, came to full fruition.

Eighty-three years later, we recall those tragic, traumatic, and trying times.

 Larry Domnitch is the author of The Impact of World War One on the Jewish People by Urim Publications. He lives in Efrat.