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1936-1939 Arab Revolt

British Politicians Hold Debate on Future of Palestine

November 24, 1938

In the midst of the 1936-1939 Arab Revolt (shown in the photo above), a debate on future British policy in Palestine is held in the House of Commons. Malcolm MacDonald, the British Colonial Secretary, opened the proceedings with an overview of the current situation of unrest in Palestine. In his remarks, MacDonald reassured the House that the British forces were “steadily and surely reestablishing the authority of the Government throughout the land.”

MacDonald, by defending the British obligation to facilitate the development of a Jewish national home, said that, “During the last 20 years many of them (Jews) have been hastening back to Palestine under the terms of a Mandate which was endorsed by more than 50 nations, under which the administration of the country was entrusted to Great Britain. I do not think that anyone can justly say that during these years Great Britain has not been fulfilling her obligation to facilitate the immigration of Jews into Palestine.”

After praising the Jewish efforts and success in turning “sand dunes into orange groves,” and transforming wasteland into “frontiers of cultivation and settlement,” MacDonald warned the House that they could not be overly impacted by or sympathetic to increasing Jewish immigration into Palestine as a result of the persecution of Jews under the yoke of Nazism.

British forces operate from the Allenby Camp in Jerusalem during the Arab Revolt.Eric Matson, Government Press Office

British forces operate from the Allenby Camp in Jerusalem during the Arab Revolt.

Speaking two weeks after the events of Kristallnacht in Germany and Austria, MacDonald warned the members of the House, “When we promised to facilitate the establishment of a national home for Jews in Palestine, we never anticipated this fierce persecution in Europe. We have made no promise that that country should be the home for everyone who is seeking to escape from such an immense calamity, and even if there were no other population in Palestine, its rather meager soil could not in fact support more than a fraction of those Jews who may wish to escape from Europe. The problem of the refugees in Central Europe cannot be settled in Palestine. It has to be settled over a far wider field than that.” These remarks were met with applause from the members of the House.

MacDonald continued his remarks by sympathizing with what he termed as the “fear” of the Palestinian Arabs who were alarmed by the continued growth of the Jewish community and their growing economic superiority. Despite the sympathies he expressed for the Arabs in Palestine, MacDonald acknowledged that the Arabs in Palestine benefited in many ways from the growth of the Jewish community: “The Jews brought with them money; development works provided extra livelihoods; modern health services, which were extended not only to Jews but to Arabs, gave the individual a further lease and security of life.”

MacDonald closed by proposing that, in lieu of the 1937 Peel Commission’s suggestion for the partition of Palestine into two states, which had by then been rejected by the Government of Britain, Arab and Jewish leaders meet in London for separate talks with the hope that all three groups might eventually come together. One of the other speakers in the House of Commons was Winston Churchill, who had taken the view two decades earlier that Palestine should be a Jewish national home. He was critical of the current British policy of planning to restrict Jewish immigration to Palestine; he also proposed a ten-year plan of fixed Jewish immigration to be tied to Arab population increases.

That conference that MacDonald suggested was held in February 1939, where Britain clamped down on Jewish demographic and physical growth and essentially accepted Churchill’s broad suggestion to limit Jewish immigration. That policy followed with the enactment of the 1939 White Paper. Britain was not allowing Jews in duress in Europe to come to Palestine lest Zionism’s growth upset Britain’s Arab allies in Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt.

Read the complete proceedings of the session

Find more details at the Center for Israel Education

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