‘A death sentence for the Jews’: 75 years since the British White Paper

By Rafael Medoff/JNS.org 

Click photo to download. Caption: A Jewish demonstration against the British White Paper in Jerusalem in 1939. Credit: Library of Congress/Matson Photo Service via Wikimedia Commons.

“We know we are going to be bamboozled,” a despondent Stephen Wise, the foremost American Jewish leader of his time, confided to a friend before boarding a ship bound for England in early 1939. The British had invited Wise and other Zionist leaders from the United States and Palestine to take part in a “peace conference” with Arab leaders. 

Wise expected the worst, and he was right. The conference in London’s majestic St. James Palace would set the stage for the imposition—75 years ago this month—of the infamous British White Paper, choking off Jewish immigration to Palestine on the eve of World War II and the Holocaust.

In the third week of the conference, a clerical error by a British secretary resulted in World Zionist Organization President Chaim Weizmann receiving a letter from Colonial Secretary Malcolm MacDonald that was intended to be seen only by the Arab delegates. In the letter, MacDonald promised severe limits on Jewish immigration and land purchases in Palestine, and no Jewish national home without Arab consent. 

His worst fears confirmed, Dr. Wise and the other American members of the delegation returned to the United States with one last hope in their hearts—that the Jews closest to the White House could persuade President Franklin D. Roosevelt to prevent the British from imposing the new policy. In fact, Wise had remarked to the president, not long before, that with war looming in Europe, “the English need you—our Government—in every sense.” And FDR had replied, “You bet.” The British could not afford to ignore pressure from the White House on Palestine.

Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, a confidant of the president as well as a supporter of Zionism, had already telephoned the president and urged U.S. intervention against the British plan. FDR waxed sympathetic on the phone and told Frankfurter to draft a note from him (Roosevelt) to British Prime Minister Chamberlain, urging him not to close Palestine’s doors. Frankfurter wrote it. FDR never sent it. 

Next it was the turn of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, whom FDR affectionately called “Old Isaiah.” But the president didn’t display much affection when it came to Zionism. In a handwritten note, Brandeis pleaded with Roosevelt to “induce the British to postpone the threatened announcement.” Two weeks passed; there was no reply. An exasperated Brandeis asked if the president could at least spare “a few minutes” to see a Zionist representative. White House aide Stephen Early broached the request with the president, and then jotted down FDR’s curt response: “Can’t see him—Sec. State is all that is possible.”

Click photo to download. Caption: A Jewish demonstration against the British White Paper in Tel Aviv in 1939. Credit: National Library of Israel via Wikimedia Commons.

On May 17, 1939, the White Paper was announced. Palestine Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion said it was “the greatest betrayal perpetrated by the government of a civilized people in our generation.” Dr. Weizmann called it “a death sentence for the Jewish people.” He was especially dismayed that “the White Paper produced no reaction on the part of the American authorities.”

Mainstream historians have always regarded England’s White Paper policy as severely unfavorable to the Jews. Prof. Henry L. Feingold has gone so far as to argue that a policy restricting immigration and land purchases only by Jews must have been “at least partly motivated by anti-Semitism.”

In recent years, however, several pro-Roosevelt authors have depicted the Allies’ Palestine policy in a new light. Robert Rosen, author of “Saving the Jews,” claims the White Paper “saved [the Jews of the Middle East] from the Holocaust,” because otherwise the Arab world supposedly would have revolted against the Allies and the Nazis would have captured the region and killed all the Jews living there. Richard Breitman and Alan Lichtman, authors of “FDR and the Jews,” claim that during the St. James conference, Roosevelt secretly pressured the British “on behalf of Jews.” Their source for that claim, however, turned out to be a paranoid Arab delegate to the conference.

But these revisionist accounts got it all wrong, and Prof. Feingold got it right. We now know from declassified British records that some senior British government officials did, in fact, harbor anti-Semitic sentiments. And we also know that President Roosevelt never seriously considered pressing the British on Palestine.

FDR went through the motions. He instructed the State Department to inform London that the U.S. hoped “no drastic changes” were intended. In a private memo to Secretary of State Cordell Hull on the day the White Paper was issued, FDR called the new policy “something that we cannot give approval to.”

But he instructed the U.S. ambassador in London, Joseph Kennedy, to limit his criticism of the White Paper to unofficial conversations. There was to be no official U.S. protest, no White House statements criticizing the White Paper, not a single substantive step that might influence London on the issue. The British took note of Roosevelt’s minimalist response and dug in their heels without fear of any real consequences. 

The history of FDR’s response to the persecution of European Jewry is littered with empty promises and missed opportunities. Seventy-five years ago this month, one of the most important of those opportunities was squandered—and as a result, one of European Jewry’s last avenues of escape from the Nazis was almost completely shut off.  

Dr. Rafael Medoff

Dr. Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, www.WymanInstitute.org.

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Posted on May 4, 2014 and filed under Features, Israel, U.S., World.