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Immigration to Israel: British Restrictions on Jewish Immigration to Palestine

(1919 - 1942)

Herbert Samuel, a British Jew who served as the first High Commissioner of Palestine, placed restrictions on Jewish immigration “in the ‘interests of the present population’ and the ‘ absorptive capacity’ of the country.”1 The influx of Jewish settlers was said to be forcing the Arab fellahin (native peasants) from their land. This was at a time when less than a million people lived in an area that now supports more than six million.

The British actually limited the absorptive capacity of Palestine by partitioning the country.

In 1921, Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill rewarded Sherif Hussein’s son Abdullah for his contribution to the war against Turkey. As a consolation prize for the Hejaz and Arabia going to the Saud family, Churchill installed him as emir. Churchill severed nearly four-fifths of Palestine—some 35,000 square miles—to create a brand new Arab emirate, Transjordan.

The British went further and placed restrictions on Jewish land purchases in what remained of Palestine, contradicting the provision of the Mandate (Article 6) that stated “the Administration of Palestine...shall encourage, in cooperation with the Jewish Agency...close settlement by Jews on the land, including State lands and waste lands not acquired for public purposes.” By 1949, however, the British had allotted 87,500 acres of the 187,500 acres of cultivable land to Arabs and only 4,250 acres to Jews.2

This made for Jewish aquistion of immigration certificates extremely difficult. As the world entered the second world war, requests for entry were difficult to accomdate to Jews all over the world. Correspondence between governing officials in Palestine and Greek Jewish authority demonstrate the sheer inflexibility.

Ultimately, the British admitted the argument about the absorptive capacity of the country was specious. The Peel Commission said: “The heavy immigration in the years 1933-36 would seem to show that the Jews have been able to enlarge the absorptive capacity of the country for Jews.”3

The British response to Jewish immigration set a precedent of appeasing the Arabs, which was followed for the duration of the Mandate. The British placed restrictions on Jewish immigration while allowing Arabs to enter the country freely. Arab populations were not considered when attempting to estimate the country's absorptive capactiy.

Jewish vs. Arab Immigration

During World War I, the Jewish population declined because of the war, famine, disease and expulsion. In 1915, approximately 83,000 Jews lived in Palestine among 590,000 Muslim and Christian Arabs. According to the 1922 census, the Jewish population was 84,000, while the Arabs numbered 643,000.4 Thus, the Arab population continued to grow exponentially even while that of the Jews stagnated.

In the mid-1920s, Jewish immigration to Palestine increased primarily because of anti-Jewish economic legislation in Poland and Washington’s imposition of restrictive quotas.5

The record number of immigrants in 1935 (see table) was a response to the growing persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany. The British administration considered this number too large, however, so the Jewish Agency was informed that less than one-third of the quota it asked for would be approved in 1936.6

The British gave in further to Arab demands by announcing in the 1939 White Paper that an independent Arab state would be created within 10 years, and that Jewish immigration was to be limited to 75,000 for the next five years, after which it was to cease altogether. It also forbade land sales to Jews in 95 percent of the territory of Palestine. The Arabs, nevertheless, rejected the proposal.

By contrast, throughout the Mandatory period, Arab immigration was unrestricted. In 1930, the Hope Simpson Commission, sent from London to investigate the 1929 Arab riots, said the British practice of ignoring the uncontrolled illegal Arab immigration from Egypt, Transjordan and Syria had the effect of displacing the prospective Jewish immigrants.7

The British Governor of the Sinai from 1922-36 observed: “This illegal immigration was not only going on from the Sinai, but also from Transjordan and Syria, and it is very difficult to make a case out for the misery of the Arabs if at the same time their compatriots from adjoining states could not be kept from going in to share that misery.”8

The Peel Commission reported in 1937 that the “shortfall of land is, we consider, due less to the amount of land acquired by Jews than to the increase in the Arab population.”9

No Refuge From the Holocaust

The gates of Palestine remained closed for the duration of the war, stranding hundreds of thousands of Jews in Europe, many of whom became victims of Hitler’s Final Solution. After the war, the British refused to allow the survivors of the Nazi nightmare to find sanctuary in Palestine. On June 6, 1946, President Truman urged the British government to relieve the suffering of the Jews confined to displaced persons camps in Europe by immediately accepting 100,000 Jewish immigrants. Britain's Foreign Minister, Ernest Bevin, replied sarcastically that the United States wanted displaced Jews to immigrate to Palestine “because they did not want too many of them in New York.”10

Some Jews were able to reach Palestine, many by way of dilapidated ships that members of the Jewish resistance organizations smuggled in. Between August 1945 and the establishment of the State of Israel in May 1948, 65 “illegal ” immigrant ships, carrying 69,878 people, arrived from European shores. In August 1946, however, the British began to intern those they caught in camps in Cyprus. Approximately 50,000 people were detained in the camps, 28,000 of whom were still imprisoned when Israel declared independence.11

1Aharon Cohen, Israel and the Arab World, (NY: Funk and Wagnalls, 1970), p. 172; Howard Sachar, A History Of Israel, (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979), p. 146.
2Moshe Auman, “Land Ownership in Palestine 1880-1948,” in Michael Curtis, et al., The Palestinians, (NJ: Transaction Books, 1975), p. 25.
3Palestine Royal Commission Report (the Peel Report), (London: 1937), p. 300.[Henceforth Palestine Royal Commission Report].
4Arieh Avneri, The Claim of Dispossession, (Tel Aviv: Hidekel Press, 1984), p. 28; and Porath, pp. 17-18.
5Yehoshua Porath, The Emergence of the Palestinian-Arab National Movement, 1918-1929, (London: Frank Cass, 1974), p. 18.
6Cohen, p. 53.
7John Hope Simpson, Palestine: Report on Immigration, Land Settlement and Development, (London, 1930), p. 126.
8Palestine Royal Commission Report, p. 291.
9Palestine Royal Commission Report, p. 242.
10 George Lenczowski, American Presidents and the Middle East, (NC: Duke University Press, 1990), p. 23.
11Cohen p. 174.