As part of Fathom’s series of essays marking the 100th anniversary of the British Mandate, Ben Crome examines Jewish immigration to Mandate Palestine through the eyes of British policy-makers in the late 1930s. Drawing on the archives of the principal British authorities, Crome explains exactly why British immigration policy changed from the generous criterion of ‘economic absorptive capacity’ to the more limited ‘political high-level’, before permanent restrictions were introduced in 1939. Although Zionists look back on 1939 as a terrible betrayal by Perfidious Albion, this essay puts the policy in the wider context of Britain’s strategic response to a looming war with Nazi Germany. 
Introduction: British Policy Before the 1939 White Paper
For many Israelis, the restrictions imposed on Jewish immigration to Mandate Palestine by the British government’s White Paper of 1939 are still remembered as the defining act of British perfidy – the one policy measure which, more than any other, demonstrated the mandatory power’s betrayal of the Jewish national home. The terms of the White Paper allowed for limited Jewish immigration for a period of five years, which would cap the number of Palestine’s Jewish inhabitants at no more than one-third of the territory’s total population, unless the Palestinian Arab leadership were to agree otherwise. Yet it is doubtful that the British policy-makers who conceived the White Paper could ever have imagined that their work would be so singularly condemned in posterity. British officials in Jerusalem and in London had acquired almost two decades of experience in implementing the terms of the Mandate, a fragile legal instrument which compelled them to foster the establishment of a Jewish national home while not prejudicing the ‘civil and religious’ rights of the Palestinian Arab population.
The origins of the White Paper’s immigration policy merit consideration in the context of Britain’s wider Palestinian policy in the late 1930s. The period from the onset of revolt in Palestine in the spring of 1936 until the outbreak of the Second World War saw a growing internationalisation of Palestinian affairs, and sometimes fierce disputes between the various arms of the British administration: chiefly the local government in Palestine as well as the Colonial Office and Foreign Office, but also between individual ministers and parliamentarians.
The mid-1930s also constituted a turning point for the British because the rise of Nazi Germany and worsening anti-Semitism throughout Central and Eastern Europe stimulated a significant increase in Jewish immigration to Palestine, tilting the demographic balance. At the end of the First World War, the proportion of Jews in Palestine was no more than 7 per cent; by June 1936, Palestine’s Jewish population was estimated at 374,000, 28 per cent of the total. The annual immigration figure tripled between 1932 and 1933, from 9,553 to 30,327, and doubled again by 1935, when 61,854 Jews immigrated to Palestine.
Until then, Jewish immigration had been regulated by a principle known as ‘economic absorptive capacity’. Every six months, the Jewish Agency and the local British administration would negotiate a quota of immigrants who could realistically be employed and absorbed into Palestine’s economic structure. In 1931, the British prime minister Ramsay MacDonald formalised the principle of economic absorptive capacity in a letter to Chaim Weizmann, president of the international Zionist Organisation. In practice, the number of immigrants was greater than the agreed quota, which included neither dependents of other immigrants or of Jews already living in Palestine, nor ‘bourgeois’ immigrants possessing more than £1,000 in capital who would not be considered a burden on the local economy. Later, illegal immigration would further inflate the tally.
For many Zionist historians, the replacement of the policy of economic absorptive capacity by the ‘political high-level’ – the euphemistic Whitehall term for unilaterally-imposed caps on immigration – represented an end to Britain’s commitment to the development of the Jewish national home. Meanwhile, for many Palestinian historians, the failure to accept the demand which had been articulated by the Arab Higher Committee since November 1935 for the immediate and total cessation of Jewish immigration confirmed Britain’s reluctance to recognise the legitimacy of Palestinian Arabs’ national rights. Neither interpretation, as is usual and understandable wherever history-writing becomes a forum for debating contemporary politics, pays enough attention to how British officials conceived their role in shaping Palestine policy.
Since British archival material became available, historians have made use of it to analyse British policy-making from the point of view of the ministers and civil servants who devised it. Notably, Michael Cohen’s 1978 study Palestine: Retreat from the Mandate: The Making of British Policy, 1936-45 identified the growing importance of the Foreign Office in shaping policy on Palestine at a time when Britain was increasingly focused on strategic concerns and sought to ensure stability in the Middle East ahead of its inevitable war with Nazi Germany. 
This essay is an attempt to understand the issue of Jewish immigration through the eyes of British policy-makers in the late 1930s. It is based on documentary material from the archives of the principal British authorities, and analyses the development of the shift from economic absorptive capacity to the political high-level, and ultimately to the permanent restrictions imposed in 1939. The issue of Jewish immigration, and the responses it provoked, was not only a secondary plotline in a regional macrohistory. It was in many respects the central motor of political developments in Palestine between 1936 and 1939. The matter at the heart of the three-way Arab-Zionist-British conflict was the number of Jewish immigrants who should enter the country. This essay discusses the influences exerted upon British officials as the question of Jewish immigration to Palestine grew detached from the country’s internal political tensions and the problems affecting European Jewry and became absorbed by strategic concerns about the looming world war with Nazi Germany.
‘Political High-Level’: New Immigration Policy
After the outbreak of revolt among Palestine’s Arab population in April 1936, a Royal Commission was despatched to Palestine to investigate the cause of the disturbances. The Commission, chaired by Lord Peel, came to the original and perspicacious conclusion that conflict between the two nationalisms, Jewish and Arab, was intractable unless the territory of the Mandate was partitioned. A separate proposal, equally novel, was that British policy towards immigration should depart from the principle of ‘economic absorptive capacity’ and encompass political and psychological factors. The new ‘political high-level’ imposed a cap of 12,000 Jewish immigrants per year over five years, representing a sharp decline from the record annual immigration figure of 1935.
It is understandable why a Zionist narrative developed which came to view the new British policy as simply an acceptance of the Arabs’ demands. The Arab Higher Committee (AHC) had made it explicit that immigration was the root cause of the 1936 disturbances. Amīn al-Ḥusaynī, president of the Supreme Muslim Council and Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, wrote to the British High Commissioner, Arthur Wauchope, on behalf of all of the Arab party leaders expressing their resolve to strike ‘until the British Government changes its present policy in a fundamental manner, the beginning of which is the stoppage of Jewish immigration’. In November, the Colonial Secretary, William Ormsby-Gore, defused rumours that immigration would be stopped while the Peel Commission was operating; the following day, the AHC vowed not to cooperate with the commissioners.
However, British officials rarely took AHC claims at face value. Whitehall was never persuaded that this unelected leadership cadre represented the views of the majority of Palestinian Arabs. Senior figures were dismissed in internal correspondence as ‘mercenaries’ or ‘terrorists’. George Rendel, the influential head of the Foreign Office’s Eastern Department, ironically commented that the Mufti was a ‘valuable ally’ of the Jews because his propensity for extreme gestures brought the Arab cause into disrepute.
Unlike the Arab leadership, the Zionist Organisation and the Jewish Agency succeeded in articulating their points with clarity and regularity. They developed a consistent line of argument as to why Jewish immigration to Palestine was both advantageous and necessary. As had been declared at the 1935 Zionist Congress in Lucerne:
Jewish achievements in Palestine have proved that Jewish immigration and settlement can proceed at a much more rapid rate than hitherto, and have greatly widened the prospects of the growth and development of the Jewish National Home. At the same time, the position of the Jews in many countries of the world makes it more than ever imperative that the pace of Jewish development in Palestine be quickened to the utmost possible extent.
The human tragedy of the European Jewish experience of the 1930s was not lost on British officials who were fully aware of the circumstances with which they were dealing. To give just one example, the Peel Commission was supplied with an article published from Nasz Przegląd, Poland’s leading Jewish newspaper, which reported the suicide of the 23-year-old Estera Zylberberg, who had saved up 1,000 złoty to pay for an immigration certificate and the journey to Palestine. After a year of waiting unsuccessfully for her certificate to emerge, she gave up hope and poisoned herself.
Most British officials did believe the Zionist claim that the sustained growth of Palestine’s economy depended on continued immigration of skilled Jewish labour and business figures with capital. Yet by 1936-37, there were clear differences in policy between the Colonial Office and the Mandatory government in Jerusalem. The former’s principal interest was in upholding the terms of the Mandate, which stipulated that Britain was responsible for the development of the Jewish national home. Wauchope’s administration, which was more attuned to the dangerous realities of Palestine, saw that it was increasingly difficult to convince the Arab population that establishing a Jewish national home was in any way desirable.
Shifting Strategic Concerns
Concurrently, Palestine began to play an increasingly important role in Britain’s strategic planning in the Middle East following the Italian invasion and conquest of Abyssinia in 1935-36. Mussolini’s ability to escape sanctions despite violating the League of Nations’ system of collective security heightened fears of further Italian expansionism. Arab leaders who had cordial relations with the British, such as Emir Abdullah of Transjordan, Nūrī al-Saʻīd, the Iraqi Foreign Minister, and Ibn Saʻūd, the king of Saudi Arabia, were considered valuable sources of political advice and cautioned local British ambassadors against ignoring the Palestinian Arabs’ demands. But even their views were met with no little official condescension. H. Lacy Baggallay, a senior Eastern Department official, did not disagree when Moshe Shertok (later Israeli Prime Minister Moshe Sharett, and then head of the Jewish Agency’s political department) who suggested that neighbouring states’ governments were more interested in controlling their own populations than Palestinian politics, and would favour Jewish immigration if it ensured economic stability in the Middle East.
However, up to 1937, the naval threat posed by the Italians to British strategic interests, particularly the vital Suez Canal, was insufficiently immediate to warrant a substantive change of British policy in Palestine. Britain did grow more sensitive about maintaining positive relations with Arab governments, and preventing British policy in Palestine from attracting their indignation, but officials were also well aware that there was little possibility of a figure such as Ibn Saʻūd abandoning his military and diplomatic ties with Britain.
When it was first proposed and introduced, the shift to the new criterion of the ‘political high-level’ was not intended to be a long-term measure; it was, as the Peel Commission stated, a ‘palliative’. Its significance was that, unlike the partition proposal, the quota was enforced immediately, and the introduction of political and psychological factors into determining policy on Jewish immigration proved irreversible. The Commission’s proposals were primarily influenced by Zionist and Arab diplomacy, and since the Palestinian Arab leadership had boycotted the Commission until a late stage, individuals such as Weizmann and Shertok were able to build a rapport with the commissioners, which gave the Zionists an unassailable diplomatic advantage.
Internally, there were murmurings of the impending internationalisation of the Palestinian question. An Eastern Department official stated the ‘strategicist’ view candidly: the Jewish ‘problem’ was primarily a European one, and as such should have no bearing on questions which affected the Middle East, a region which ‘does directly and vitally affect Great Britain’. Ultimately, however, the strategic dimension barely featured in the Commission’s overall report and there is little evidence to suggest that it had much relevance to the imposition of the political high-level. In mid-1937, the official mind saw it as a measure fair to the interests of the Palestinian Arabs, compatible with Britain’s Mandatory obligations to the Jews, and not contradictory to British diplomatic and strategic interests.
The rejection of partition: July 1937 to November 1938
Following the British ratification of the Peel Commission’s recommendations in July 1937, the Cabinet agreed to form a new technical commission, chaired by Sir John Woodhead, to investigate the practicality of partition. The Woodhead Commission would eventually conclude that partition was not a viable option. Yet while ministers were debating partition, often theoretically, in the context of the Mandate’s long-term future, immigration remained a pressing reality not to be deferred. Zionist and Arab dissatisfaction with the ‘political high-level’ necessitated a rapid reappraisal of the government’s ambiguous policy. By the end of 1937, Weizmann could accurately tell Ormsby-Gore of the ‘general bewilderment and confusion’ of both the Jewish and the Arab populations concerning the direction of British policy on immigration to Palestine.
Legal Jewish immigration shrunk by a third between 1936 and 1937, to just 10,536, while the six-monthly quota was reduced to just 1,150 for April-September 1938. The 1937 Zionist Congress rejected the ‘political high-level’, and Weizmann said of the decree that it was ‘an infringement of the Mandate, and public opinion will likewise condemn it’. The AHC, for its part, also declared its opposition to the ‘political high-level’, and the violence which had been stalled during the Peel Commission’s period of operation resumed.
Local British officials observed the rising appeal of Palestinian nationalism. When the village of ʻAyn Ghazāl was awarded £50 worth of minor works in return for its quiescence, its mukhtār admitted that ‘the activities of the [rebel] gangs are a mistake’, but added, ‘If anybody has been telling you that either I or anybody else do not sympathise with [them] … they are lying’.
The Colonial Office in London initially adopted a wait-and-see policy in response to these critiques. An internal memorandum of January 1938 stated, ‘To return to the criterion of economic absorptive capacity pure and simple would involve repudiation of our acceptance of the main argument of the Royal Commission’. Amidst the havoc the revolt wrought on Palestine’s economy and society, Ormsby-Gore was replaced as Colonial Secretary by Malcolm MacDonald, who was more susceptible to Foreign Office influence.
By the middle of 1938, the dominant figure in Palestine policy was neither MacDonald nor the new Foreign Secretary, Viscount Halifax, but George Rendel. Rendel was at that point set to be appointed ambassador to Bulgaria, but had dictated the tone with an influential memorandum in October 1937 which claimed that the Palestinian Arabs ‘prefer their own poverty and inefficiency to prosperity and modern progress under the Jews’. This argument was used to refute claims that Jewish immigration was beneficial because it brought economic growth, and Rendel came under heavy criticism from John Shuckburgh, his Colonial Office counterpart, who derided an ‘attitude of semi-apology towards all Arabs, however insolent their behaviour’ and called it ‘typical of the Rendel policy with which the Foreign Office have indoctrinate[d] all their agents’. Rendel concluded his October 1937 memorandum by stating, ‘There is virtually no problem in Palestine. But there is a very serious problem of the extra-Palestinian Jews’.
For the Foreign Office, opposition to the ‘political high-level’ was not problematic because of the revolt in Palestine, but because leaders throughout the Arab world denounced British policy and increasingly used it as leverage in their relations with the British. Sir Miles Lampson, Britain’s ambassador in Cairo, was a consistent advocate of a permanent restriction on immigration, with his main concern being a genuine fear of endangering Britain’s interests in Egypt. ‘The position of the Egyptian government who are loyally trying to damp down extremism is becoming daily more embarrassing,’ because of British inaction on the matter, he wrote in October 1938.
The internationalisation of Palestinian politics had considerable ramifications for British strategic interests in the Middle East. By 1938, British diplomats could note that the German press had taken to magnifying the significance of the disturbances in Palestine in order to underline the fragility of British imperial control. Recognising this strategic shift, Jewish arguments shifted to presenting immigration as a means of building up a Jewish army that would support the British in its war effort. In practical terms, this would bring significant relief: since the start of the revolt, more than 17,000 British troops and two RAF squadrons had been redeployed to Palestine, principally from Egypt. Yet while the British were prepared to cooperate informally with the Jewish paramilitary Haganah, a formal alliance would risk imperiling Britain’s relations with the Arab states. With no serious international initiative towards relieving the worsening situation facing Europe’s Jews, and with the humanitarian pro-Zionism which had once characterised aspects of Colonial Office planning now redundant, Weizmann and his colleagues had no choice but to frame their arguments in strategic, interest-based terms.
Despite the continuing revolt in Palestine, the changing dynamics of power in Whitehall, and the shifts in international diplomacy that had taken place in 1937-38, in September 1938 there was no imminent prospect of a revision to immigration policy. Three turning points affected the Palestinian situation in the autumn of 1938. Firstly, the Munich agreements defused the threat of European war and appeared to stabilise Britain’s international strategic position. Secondly, appeasement in Europe allowed greater scope for significant military commitment in Palestine, and the imposition of martial law quickly ended the revolt as a military threat. A placated Palestine could serve as a buffer protecting the Suez Canal, ensure a contiguous British-controlled land route from India to Egypt, and allow for the passage of oil from Iraq to the Mediterranean Sea via the port of Haifa. Thirdly, the Woodhead Commission’s report, which became government policy in November 1938, ruled out partition and again forced the British government to reappraise the future of the Mandate. Although the next steps were still being outlined, it was clear that Jewish immigration to Palestine was no longer an issue that only concerned the populations of Palestine, and so there was no possibility of a return to economic absorptive capacity as a guiding principle for its regulation. The affairs of Palestine were now the affairs of the Middle East and of British imperial and strategic policy-making as a whole.
Towards the White Paper: November 1938 to May 1939
On 17 May 1939, the White Paper on Palestine was presented by the British government as a new Statement of Policy. It pledged to create an independent state in Palestine under treaty relations with Britain, with the number of Jews allowed to enter the country permanently capped at 75,000 over a five-year period. The genesis of the White Paper lay in the Foreign Office, and in particular a memorandum composed by Halifax in December 1938. The period between the end of 1938 and May 1939 was distinctive and remarkable in terms of the unanimity with which a programme for action was agreed upon and enacted by the British government, with Halifax’s proposals forming the basis of the policy eventually drafted under MacDonald’s supervision in the Colonial Office.
The shift in Foreign Office thinking in 1938-39 emanated from the emphatic realisation that Britain’s priority should be the maintenance of its security interests in the Middle East, and that every other consideration should be secondary. This meant that the support of each Arab state allied to Britain needed to be ensured, and any discontent felt by the Jewish population in Palestine, which numbered around 420,000 by the end of 1938, towards Britain’s policy-making was secondary to the potentially dangerous consequences of estrangement from the Arabs. The December 1938 memorandum asserted that any military commitment in Palestine would be detrimental to Britain’s wider strategic ambitions, and while Jewish rejection of British policy would have few ramifications outside of the Jewish community in Palestine, the consequences of Arab rejection would be much more severe. Thus, ‘failing an Arab-Jewish agreement, His Majesty’s Government must make a determined effort to do justice to the Arab cause, and more especially to conciliate our Arab friends and allies’. Reaching an agreement with Egypt, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia was considered central, and, if such an agreement necessitated ensuring a definitive end to Jewish immigration, this would be a worthwhile sacrifice.
The Failed Round Table Conference of February-March 1939
This was the background to the convocation of a round-table conference in London in February and March 1939, at which representatives of worldwide Jewry, Palestinian Arabs and the leaders of the Arab states were invited to discuss their differences and resolve them mutually. The conference was such a failure that some historians have suggested that the government organised it precisely to prove the non-compatibility of Jewish and Arab interests, thereby justifying Britain imposing a policy as it saw fit. When the conference began, the atmosphere was, in Weizmann’s words, one of ‘utter futility’. From Cairo, Lampson warned the Foreign Office that, as long as Jewish immigrants were still arriving in Palestine, the negotiations would invariably collapse. The Saudi king Ibn Saʻūd told the British ambassador in Riyadh, Sir Reader Bullard, that any future settlement which maintained the level of Jewish immigration at 12,000 per year would be unacceptable. George Antonius, secretary-general to the Palestinian conference delegation, said that he was ‘extremely pessimistic’ concerning the chances of a successful resolution. Merely assembling a Palestinian delegation required significant external intervention in order to overcome Jamāl al-Ḥusaynī’s resistance towards the inclusion of Rāghib al-Nashāshībī and other members of his opposition National Defence Party. Al-Nashāshībī even hinted that it would be preferable to solve the Palestinian problem without the Palestinian Arabs, such was the difficulty of establishing internal unity, and the British hosts scarcely attached any more importance to the Palestinian delegation. Lacy Baggalay dismissed Ḥusaynī’s introductory remarks as ‘simply an uncompromising statement of what the Arabs demand, with little or no attempt at argument’.
Although the conference was termed ‘round-table’, the Jewish and Palestinian Arab delegates never sat around the same negotiating table. Instead, British interlocutors conducted parallel meetings with each delegation separately. At the second Anglo-Jewish meeting, Weizmann noted that even if he asked for the greatest possible level of immigration of 70,000-80,000 per year for five years, this would affect 0.5 per cent of the European Jews he described as ‘doomed to destruction’. A week later, MacDonald suggested that Jewish immigration should continue for a given period of time based on economic absorptive capacity, but at a level which would maintain the Jews as a minority in Palestine. Weizmann asked for time to reflect, but by 27 February 1939, at the last formal meeting involving the Jewish delegates, Weizmann rejected MacDonald’s offer: ‘No settlement can be considered which would place the Jewish national home under Arab rule, or condemn the Jews to a minority life in Palestine’.
Prior to that meeting, the Jewish delegates had received leaked copies of the proposal – completely unpalatable to them – to halt immigration after a five-year buffer period had elapsed. On 10 March, MacDonald compiled a concluding memorandum to be sent to the Cabinet outlining his final proposals to the Jewish and Arab delegations. It called for a limit of 90,000 Jewish immigrants over a five-year period. MacDonald met the Egyptian, Iraqi and Saudi representatives on the same day and asked if they saw any chance of leaving the possibility of Jewish immigration open to discussion after five years. All of them replied unequivocally that the Palestinian Arabs would not accept such a proposal. The next day, David Ben-Gurion stated equally categorically that any independent state in Palestine would become an Arab state and was therefore undesirable. He summarised the experience in his memoirs, ‘Zionism meant aliyah, and without aliyah we had nothing to discuss’. That left MacDonald to present a draft Statement of Policy, which would reduce immigration to 75,000 over five years. He remarked that due to the failure of the conference to produce an agreement, it had become the responsibility of the government to take a decision. The Palestinian Arab delegation responded that the proposals were ‘open to serious objections both from the point of view of ordinary justice and from the point of view of their practicability’. The mediating role MacDonald hoped the Arab states would play did not materialise.
‘If we must offend one side, let us offend the Jews rather than the Arabs’: The 1939 White paper
Four paragraphs of the May 1939 Statement of Policy relate to immigration, starting with the argument that Jewish immigration had consistently provoked Arab dissatisfaction, culminating in the 1936 revolt. If economic absorptive capacity continued to determine policy towards Jewish immigration, the Statement continued, ‘a fatal enmity between the two peoples will be perpetuated, and the situation in Palestine may become a permanent source of friction amongst all peoples in the Near and Middle East’. The government believed that an immediate cessation of immigration would be detrimental to Jewish and Arab economic interests in Palestine. Therefore, it was resolved to allow 75,000 Jewish immigrants entry over a five-year period: an annual quota of 10,000 immigrants, depending on economic absorptive capacity; and an additional 25,000 Jewish refugees from Europe who would be allowed entry as Palestine’s contribution to the solution of the global Jewish refugee problem.
The response to the White Paper was unanimous. For the Zionists, it confirmed that the British could no longer be relied upon to deliver their promises. Weizmann, who had clung with steadfast faith to the ‘London-Jerusalem axis’, ceded influence to Ben-Gurion, whose legendary dictum summarised Jewish Agency attitudes: ‘We will fight the [Second World] war as if there is no White Paper, and we will fight the White Paper as if there is no war’. Amīn al-Ḥusaynī, and the Arab states, with the arguable exception of Transjordan, also condemned the White Paper. The Iraqi newspaper al-Bilad published an article stating, ‘People are amazed at Britain’s obstinate persistence in her mistaken policy. This paper will certainly embitter revolt and win new sympathy for Palestine Arabs in other Arab lands. It is easy to see at a glance that the new policy is doomed to failure’.
For Palestine’s Arab population, before the White Paper it had been widely acknowledged that British policy-makers acted without regard to their national interests. After it, it was known for sure. But this view assumes that Palestinian nationalism was in any way a consideration for British policy-makers. Nobody in Whitehall considered that the Arab states would be placated if independence was granted to Arab Palestine; the ministers and their civil servants believed that their allies in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iraq wanted an end to Jewish immigration, and this was the explanation for the White Paper policy. As Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain brusquely told MacDonald in April 1939, ‘If we must offend one side, let us offend the Jews rather than the Arabs’. When the immigration policy of the White Paper was compiled, the fate of the Jews in Europe, the development of the Jewish national home, and the political ambitions of the AHC were all subordinated to the maintenance of security in Palestine and of the British sphere of influence in the Middle East. As one historian of Zionism has written, ‘the Zionist pressure for rescue of Europe’s Jews was an extraneous nuisance threatening the balance of British imperial interests’. In the pursuit of Britain’s immediate strategic objectives, the realist perspective of the Eastern Department of the Foreign Office superseded the ambition of Ormsby-Gore’s Colonial Office for a political solution within Palestine in the context of the preparations for the anticipated war.
British restrictions on Jewish immigration to Palestine had not been a significant concern for Zionist leaders before the mid-1930s. Indeed, their problem was an opposite one: very few European Jews actually wanted to move to Palestine. The longstanding potential for mass immigration to have a disruptive effect on Palestine materialised when revolt broke out in 1936. However, the revolt in Palestine did not come to an end because of a change in British policy concerning Jewish immigration, but rather because of its crippling effects on the local economy and the government’s declaration of martial law. The decisive change in immigration policy, which took place in the spring of 1939, was enacted in order to maintain Britain’s strategic position in the Middle East. The fate of European Jewry in the face of escalating persecution and the internal political situation in Palestine had both become subordinated to Britain’s wider military ambitions. While the introduction of the new criterion of the ‘political high-level’ in 1937 had been a palliative solution intended to quell tension and violence in the country, the White Paper of 1939 was primarily a response to Britain’s need to ensure its allies in the Middle East remained supportive during any future war.
Palestine is a unique case study in imperial management. It has been argued that the White Paper should be seen as a precursor to the Colonial Welfare and Development Act of 1940, which provided for the development of infrastructure in other pre-independence British colonies. But while the White Paper was being planned, neither the Foreign Office nor the Colonial Office saw Arab self-government in Palestine as particularly desirable. There was little precedent for planned decolonisation at all, let alone where two separate national movements competed for power – measures such as the Anglo-Iraqi treaty of 1930, which led to Iraq’s independence in 1932, or the Franco-Syrian constitutional agreement of 1936 could not be replicated.
Palestine attracted a singular degree of international attention, much of it emotional. When Malcolm MacDonald announced the adoption of the Woodhead Commission’s findings, he told Parliament, ‘When I turn to the Palestine problem I feel a certain awe and reverence … This House has had placed in its keeping many noble trusts, but it has never had a trust so sacred as that of restoring peace and good will in the Holy Land’. The Palestine question juxtaposed such a range of influences that MacDonald’s predecessor, Ormsby-Gore, was not exaggerating when he wrote in January 1937 that ‘Palestine is certainly my most difficult and pressing problem in the Colonial Office, and my mind is constantly on it’.
One historian of the British Empire has asserted of the years from 1917 to 1948 that ‘it is arguable that Palestine was the greatest failure in the whole history of British imperial rule’. And yet, despite the restrictions placed on immigration, the Jewish community in Palestine had little choice but to support the British cause in the gathering conflict with Nazi Germany. Moreover, despite the widespread Arab dissatisfaction with the White Paper policy, there was no resumption of the Arab revolt in the country during the course of the Second World War. This alone could vindicate the success of the White Paper as a short-term measure to ensure stability in Palestine, which was further justified by the way in which Britain maintained control over the Suez Canal and broadly sustained its alliances with the Arab states, despite the Iraqi government’s temporary support for the Axis powers.
The successes of the White Paper, however, should also not be exaggerated. The issue of Jewish immigration to Palestine was not the only factor on which the position of the Arab states hung, and for the insecure political elites in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, there was little alternative but to continue to rely on the British. Meanwhile, the outbreak of war had not forced the two national movements in Palestine underground but rather encouraged them to plan for a final settlement favourable to their interests once the war was over. The Zionist Organisation’s Biltmore Platform of 1942 was a clear repudiation of Weizmann’s gradualism and represented a desire for renewed moves towards the immediate establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine after the war.
By 1945, the unprecedented upsurge in international support for the Zionist cause, and the importance of the USA in world affairs, rendered the 1939 immigration policy obsolete, and it became apparent that the White Paper had been another palliative rather than a durable solution to the Palestine problem. However, the prudent sense of imperial management which underlay the White Paper represented a temporary achievement amid an overall picture of mismanagement, and to portray the new policy as an outright failure for the British is to decontextualise the White Paper, and to view it solely through the lens of the late 1940s.
 Perfidious Albion, or Disloyal Britain, refers to acts of diplomatic betrayal with respect to promises made by monarchs or governments of Great Britain.
 The National Archives (TNA), CO 814/11. Palestine government annual report, 1936.
 B. Wasserstein, The British in Palestine: The Mandatory Government and the Arab-Jewish Conflict, 1917-1929 (London, 1978), p. 240.
 See, for instance, H.M. Sachar, A History of Israel: from the rise of Zionism to our time (Oxford, 1977), pp. 195-226; N. Goldmann, Memories: The Autobiography of Nahum Goldmann: The story of a lifelong battle by world Jewry’s ambassador at large (London, 1970), p. 176.
 See, for instance, G. Antonius, The Arab Awakening: The Story of the Arab National Movement (London, 2000), pp. 386-412; D. Gilmour, The Ordeal of the Palestinians, 1917-1980 (London, 1980), p. 56; W. Khalidi, Palestine Reborn (London, 1992), pp. 38-41.
 M.J. Cohen, Palestine: Retreat from the Mandate: The Making of British Policy, 1936-45 (London, 1978).
 Palestine Royal Commission, Report: Presented by the Secretary of State for the Colonies to Parliament by Command of His Majesty (London, 1937), pp. 279-307.
 TNA, CO 733/297/2.
 TNA, CO 814/13. Palestine government annual report, 1938; see chapter on ‘Police’. See also C. Townshend., ‘The Defence of Palestine: insurrection and public security, 1936-1939’, in The English Historical Review 103 (1988), p. 920.
 TNA, FO 371/20804. Rendel, internal memorandum, 14 Jan. 1937.
 TNA, CO 733/281/10. Notes from the Jewish Agency Council, Fourth Meeting, 4-6 Sept. 1935.
 TNA, CO 733/343/5.
 TNA, FO 371/20805. Lacy Baggallay memorandum after meeting with Shertok, 19 Mar. 1937.
 TNA, FO 371/20028. Sterndale-Bennett, internal memorandum, 11 Nov. 1936.
 TNA, CO 733/333/12. Weizmann to Ormsby-Gore, 10 Dec. 1937
 CO 733/399/4. Palestine government annual report, 1938, Introduction; TNA, CO 733/399/8. Palestine government annual report, 1938, Chapter IV: Immigration and Emigration.
 TNA, CO 733/336/18. Weizmann to Shuckburgh, 14 Oct. 1937; TNA, CO 733/352/9. Speech to Zionist Congress at Zurich, 4 Sept. 1937.
 TNA, CO 733/366/4. MacMichael to Ormsby-Gore, 14 Apr. 1938.
 TNA, CO 733/331/1. H.F. Downie, internal memorandum, 8 January 1938.
 TNA, FO 371/20816. Rendel, ‘Palestine: Policy of His Majesty’s Government’, 25 Oct. 1937.
 TNA, CO 733/366/4. Shuckburgh to Parkinson, 26 Feb. 1938.
 TNA, FO 371/20816. Rendel, ‘Palestine: Policy of His Majesty’s Government’, 25 Oct. 1937.
 TNA, FO 371/21881. Lampson to Foreign Office, 10 Oct. 1938.
 TNA, CO 733/381/6. Henderson to Oliphant, 17 Aug. 1938.
 D. Engel, Zionism (Harlow, 2009), pp. 105-130; D. Omissi, ‘The Mediterranean and the Middle East in British Global Strategy, 1935-39’, in M.J. Cohen and M. Kolinsky (eds.), Britain and the Middle East in the 1930s: Security Problems, 1935-1939 (Basingstoke, 1992), p. 15.
 M.J. Cohen, ‘British Strategy and the Palestine Question, 1936-39’, in Journal of Contemporary History 7/3-4 (1972), pp. 174, 181-3.
 See TNA, CO 733/381/7. Weizmann argued, in a meeting with Consul-General Heathcote-Smith on 26 March 1938 in Alexandria, that the nucleus of a Jewish army should consist of 60,000 young, highly-trained recruits who were simultaneously capable of warding off the Arab threat and assisting the British
 Omissi, ‘The Mediterranean and the Middle East’, pp. 14-16.
 TNA, FO 371/21869. Halifax, Foreign Office memorandum, 21 Dec. 1938.
 Sachar, A History of Israel, pp. 219-222.
 C. Weizmann, Trial and Error: The Autobiography of Chaim Weizmann (New York, 1949), p. 402.
 TNA, FO 371/21865. Lampson to Foreign Office, 5 Nov. 1938.
 TNA, FO 371/21869. Halifax to MacMichael, 6 Jan. 1939.
 TNA, FO 371/23221. J. Roberts, internal memorandum after meeting with Antonius, 30 Jan. 1939.
 TNA, FO 371/23222. Lampson to Foreign Office, 3 Feb. 1939.
 TNA, FO 371/23223. Lacy Baggallay, internal memorandum, 10 Feb. 1939. This stood in contrast to his assessment of Weizmann’s performance, about which he wrote, ‘I do not think that anyone who heard Dr Weizmann will deny that he made a statement of extraordinary skill and at times of an extraordinary appeal’.
 TNA, FO 371/23224. Notes of sixth meeting of British and Jewish Agency representatives, 15 Feb. 1939.
 TNA, FO 371/23226. Notes of ninth meeting of British and Jewish Agency representatives, 27 Feb. 1939.
 Cohen, Retreat from the Mandate, p. 77.
 TNA, FO 371/23228. MacDonald memorandum to Cabinet, 10 Mar. 1939.
 TNA, FO 371/23229. Notes of conversation between MacDonald and Arab representatives, 10 Mar. 1939.
 Ibid. Notes of third informal meeting between MacDonald and Jewish Agency representatives, 11 Mar. 1939.
 D. Ben-Gurion, My Talks with Arab Leaders, ed. M. Louvish (Jerusalem, 1972), ‘Executive discuss policy, Mar. 7 1939’, p. 256.
 TNA, FO 371/23229. MacDonald memorandum to Cabinet, 15 Mar. 1939.
 TNA, FO 371/23231. Notes of fourteenth meeting between British and Arab representatives, 17 Mar. 1939.
 H.M. Government, ‘The White Paper of 1939’, in W. Laqueur and B. Rubin (eds.), The Israel-Arab Reader: A Documentary History of the Middle East Conflict (London, 1984), p. 72.
 Ibid., p. 72.
 Ibid., p. 73.
 TNA, FO 371/23235. Houston-Boswall to Foreign Office, 19 May 1939.
 Cited in Cohen, Retreat from the Mandate, p. 84.
 N. Lucas, The Modern History of Israel (London, 1974), p. 196.
 R. W. Zweig, ‘The Palestine problem in the context of colonial policy on the eve of the Second World War’, in Cohen and M. Kolinsky, Britain and the Middle East, pp. 206-16.
 TNA, FO 371/21869. Baxter, internal memorandum 19 Jan. 1939.
 See Y. Porath, The Palestinian Arab National Movement: From Riots to Rebellion: Volume Two, 1929-1939 (London, 1977), p. 299.
 TNA, CO 733/399/4. A copy of the speech was attached to the Palestine government annual report, 1938. See also M. MacDonald, Titans and Others (London, 1972), p. 21.
 FO 371/20804. Ormsby-Gore to Eden, 23 Jan. 1937.
 D.K. Fieldhouse, Western Imperialism in the Middle East, 1914-1958 (Oxford, 2006), p. 151.
 Cohen, Retreat from the Mandate, p. 131.