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The Infamous British White Paper

The Infamous British White Paper

75 years ago the “death sentence for the Jews” was handed down while the U.S. remained silent.

by and

“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.

Ben-Gurion said it was “the greatest betrayal perpetrated by the government of a civilized people in our generation.”

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.”

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.

The history of FDR’s response to the persecution of European Jewry is littered with empty promises and missed opportunities.

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 is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies,

May 10, 2014

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Visitor Comments: 32

(21) Lisa, September 23, 2014 7:15 PM

Not all Brits

Not all Britons were or are Jew haters. They took in and saved my direct family, who were helped and financed by non-Jews to escape Eastern Europe in the 1930s. I consider myself a proud English Jew, and can honestly and wholeheartedly say, the only anti-Semitism I have ever experienced in Britain has been from a muslim on a train, who noticed me wearing the Star of David.

(20) Beverly Margolis-Kurtin, May 29, 2014 2:01 AM

What goes around comes around

FDR wanted WWII. To assure that we would get involved, he cut off oil exports to Japan in order to try to get them to stop ravinging Asia. Instead, as he must have known, he brought about Pearl Harbor.
The abominable “White Paper” signed the death sentence on us, however, there was a warning before that: Mein Kampf. Jews who read it and took it to heart, left Germany and Poland. They knew Hitler was not kidding. Those who read it and did not believe it paid with their lives.
My paternal side of the family lost 47 members to the Holocaust; the others had escaped to America and South America while getting out was good.
Our family had sent money to those who could not afford to leave, they spent it. Two more times the family sent money with the same result. Then it was too late.
All four of my grandparents escaped to the United States shortly after the turn of the century. They were escaping the progroms of Russia and Poland. It is a shame that not all of the hundreds (possibly thousands?) of their descendants do not know that they have their great and great great grandparents for leaving Europe when there was more than enough time. It is a pity.
The British had no qualms about resisting the immigration of Jews to Palestine, they have never had the slightest love for the Jews. I speak of the government, not the people. The “Royals” are rooted in German blood; that is the genesis of their Jew hate.
Even when we were about to get a country of our own for the first time in two thousand years, the British tried to make certain that the five Arab nations that attacked us would have a better than even chance of destroying us. They were wrong.
Today’s monsters who would destroy us and all of the West are the people with whom the Brits tried to make friends. Their Muslim “friends” are doing all they can do to destroy the Brits.
What goes around comes around.

(19) annie, May 26, 2014 9:44 AM

the right to flight

although many Jews did not go to Palestine (nee Israel) in the 20's and 30's - that is not the issue
FDR, Britain and many others turned their back on Jews at that time
it isn't about "going" it is about being "allowed" to go - when and if one wants or needs to

If you are Greek and want to return to Greece - and are told "you can't go" - because the British, Americans etc. want to pay off someone with human life for their goods
That Is Wrong - it is the responsibility of all people of the world to stand together against evil
not collect revenue by the sale of human flesh

(18) Anonymous, May 18, 2014 7:07 PM

America is to blame for the Worlds problems.

Yep, America (U.S.) remains silent per usual....both past and present. The United States is guilty of every known sin in the world, and it knows it...and enjoys it. It's the most selfish, land hungry, and narcissistic country in the world. It continually refuses to help any nation or nations fight evil, and is therefore evil itself. The best thing that could happen in this world is that the United States just goes away, and leave itself to it's own demise. Yep, Americans just don't care about anything but themselves......

(17) Hanan, May 15, 2014 11:58 PM


With all due respect, bad decisions that have terrible moral consequences are rampant in every culture and nation. Did we ever hear the orthodox (and I am one) screaming to save any number of people from persecution and death (Cambodians, Darfur etc etc.)? How many of the Israeli orthodox as a combined voice were there to save the Ethiopians, only instead for them to be treated like second rate Jews and citizens.

You can't shout out how nobody came to your rescue when we ourselves have not been exactly the shinning light either. Since this is an orthodox website, I am particularly addressing orthodoxy here.

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