Not sure if this is the correct forum to ask this, but I'm currently reading 'Exodus' by Leon Uris, and I'm curious as to why the British were so reluctant in letting Jewish people in Palestine.

This is only very softly explained in the book, but I'm curious to a more in-depth look and explanation.


6 Answers 6


To give a little more depth from what TED notes, this did take shape over time and was based on Zionism and how it was being viewed by the British at the time. There were also competing interests that eventually collided as time wen on. When the Ottoman empire entered on the side of the Germany this prompted Britain, France and Russia to partition the Ottoman territories in the event of an Allied victory. The British pledge to Sharif Husayn of Mecca and the Sykes-Picot Agreement between Britain and France were two of the principal proposals for territorial division. The Balfour Declaration was another, yet it was met with suspicion by France and Sharif Husayn as contravening the agreements Britain had already made.

During WWI it was widely believed by many within the British government that Jewish groups held an unusual amount of power within the Russian and American governments. This might affect Russian and US involvement in the war and until the American declaration came it was thought that Germany might make a declaration of support for Zionism and then America might enter on the side against Britain. With Russia being unstable it was thought that it too might be swayed by any German sympathy towards Zionism. So it was thought that British interests would be served by gestures of goodwill towards the Zionists, Chaim Weizmann was the spokesman in London during this period and was a significant policymaker, he was also a very charismatic spokesman and had many ties within the British government. He kept the idea alive about a Jewish Homeland in Palestine, it should be noted that what the Jews thought of as a homeland and what the British considered it as became the main point of contention later on.

British strategic interests in the Middle East were helped out by promoting the Zionist cause, this gave them an ally in the area and would also keep out France. The Balfour declaration gave the British support for Zionism, yet it was ambiguous and contradictory enough that later on this would be hard to implement and was chiefly a failure as the competing interests noted here did not get what they wanted. The idea that you could grant a Jewish state and provide for the continual rights of the non-Jews in the area was not possible as written. When the British captured Jerusalem in December 1917 this allowed for the British military occupation of Palestine and it was then that the British tried to reconcile Zionism and Arabism by getting Weizmann and Faysal of Syria to negotiate. They did agree to cooperation between the Jews and the Arabs so that Jewish communities would cooperate with the Arabs and Faysal would recognize the Balfour Declaration and consent to Jewish immigration so long as the rights of Palestinian Arabs were protected and Greater Syria was independent. Faysal did not agree to a Jewish state though, this becomes important later on. Although, once the French took Syria these agreements became null and void.

The main point became the idea of a Jewish national home, Weizmann was sure what it meant as a spokesman for Zionism, he had stated at the Paris Peace Conference that the Zionist objective was to make Palestine as Jewish as England was English. The Zionists expected the British to go along with this idea, Britain did not and within the Balfour Declaration had noted that they wanted to protect Palestinian Arab rights as well. It was the idea of equal obligation and the unsolvable contradiction to the Balfour Declaration. The British tried to clarify itself in the 1922 White Paper, and within there noted that a Jewish nation home did not mean imposition of a Jewish nationality on all of Palestine. It did note that Jews had a right to be in Palestine and that it should become a place where the Jews could go. Yet the British High Commissioner tried to balance the Zionist aims and the freedoms of the Palestinian Arabs, yet failed and it was through this that the Jews and Arabs became hostile to each other. This was exacerbated once Jewish immigration raised the population representational ratios from about 82-16 Arab-Jewish in 1931 to 67-31 Arab-Jewish in 1946. Land was bought by the Jews from absentee Arab landlords such that the Arab tenant farmers were evicted, which began a cycle where Arabs were becoming economically depressed (considering this was the 1930's) and began having to sell land, which increased Jewish land ownership. This also dispossessed the Arabs where they considered themselves as unrepresented from their own leaders, the British were seen as not being willing to intervene and the Zionists they considered as the cause.

With this antagonism building due to immigration and land purchases, tensions rose and the Arabs protested with acts of violence with the Wailing Wall disturbance of 1929 and revolts within 1936-1939. This is when the British responded by first the Shaw Commission which noted that Arab rights were not being protected as per the Balfour Agreement and that Jewish immigration needed to be put under British control, instead of following these recommendations the British then sent the Hope-Simpson Commission and their recommendations were put into the Passfield White Paper which finally stressed British obligations to Arabs and Jews and it was a recommendation here that Jewish immigration needed to be restricted due to the limited economic capacity of Palestine.

Sorry for the long background, but this is a complex situation that took time to build up, and although this was eventually overturned by Weizmann and members of the British and US governments it was at least a point where the British really tried to clear up their own inconsistencies and policies in the region. My main source for this was A History of the Modern Middle East by William Cleveland and Martin Bunton, we used this text in my Modern Middle East History class and it is very thorough on this situation.

  • In depth and well thought-through. +1.
    – Tynam
    Jun 7, 2012 at 10:19
  • Why tension raise due to land purchase? Land seizing cause tension is something I can understand. Land purchase?
    – user4951
    Jan 2, 2013 at 21:48
  • 2
    @JimThio Although the land was purchased many of the Arabs felt that the process was against them as land was purchased from absentee landlords or those who lived there were out of work and felt they had no recourse but to sell to the only buyers who happened to be Israeli Jews. Rightly or wrongly, I don't have a position on it one way or another, to them it seemed the land was slipping from Arab hands to Jewish ones.
    – MichaelF
    Jan 25, 2013 at 12:49
  • 7
    @JimThio To extend on MichaelIF and propose an analogy, most people in urban areas in Europe live on land that does not belong to them. They rent apartments/houses from sometimes very rich landlords who don't even live in the countries or cities where they own land. The landlord decides to sell his property because there's an economic crisis and he needs the money. The people who rent their homes from him are now kicked out on the street. This is the Palestinian point of view, and how they lived the situation. That being said, it's business as usual for human beings.
    – Juicy
    May 2, 2014 at 5:48

They were cheifly worried about the resentment it was creating among the resident Arab population, and thus instability in an area they were nominally responsible for.

The flip side is that the Jewish state was pretty much their idea in the first place. It seems like it didn't occur to them that it was a problem to promise the Arabs and the Jews two mutually-exclusive things: A pan-Arab state covering all the existing Arab areas, and a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

There's a good bit of exposition on this period in the Wikipedia entry for Mandatory Palestine. The British "reluctance" appears to have taken official form in the 1939 White Paper. The background section of that entry seems to be particularly informative about this period.

  • 4
    Just to put in context: The idea of building a Jewish state in an already occupied land sounds more weird nowadays than it sounded in the height of colonial empires. To 1917 people, Jewish colonisation of Palestine wouldn't be more weird than French colonisation of Algeria or British colonisation of Rodhesia, New Zealand or Australia or Italian colonisation of Libia, all of them intended to be inhabited by people from the metropolis. Of course, Arabs saw it from another point of view.
    – Pere
    Nov 8, 2016 at 19:22
  • @Pere On the other hand, consider the sensitivity with which the Austrians handled the Bosnian Muslim population 1878-1918 and I think you'll agree the Brits weren't exactly wonderful actors even by the standards of their time
    – C Monsour
    Mar 26, 2020 at 0:55

Many of the Early Zionist Leadership advocated Ideas like 'transfer' (removal of the ran population) and 'Jewish Labour' the idea that Jews needed to be involved in agriculture and industry and the Jewish state needed to be built by Jewish labour, a sort of denouncing of the limited roles that Jews had be forced into in Europe. These ideas also meet in the idea that the bulk of the Arab population could be forced to emigrate by being denied employment, (Hezl advocated this, see Benny Morris Righteous Victims). The Zionists purchase of land would often be accompanied by the mass eviction of the poor tenant farmers (the British introduced rules to protect these tents by then the Arab Sellers simply evicted the tents before the sale) The Zionist settlers often used European methods of agriculture requiring less labour (they had capital to buy machines, tractors, horses, steel ploughs which the poor local farmers did not) but there was also a Zionist policy not to employ Arab labour (sporadically enforced through things like the Jewish Labour union )

There was also a policy that once land was purchased it would never be sold back to Arabs (the JNF and forerunners).

Benny Morris on herzl and transfer (righteous victims page 21) 'but in private herzl sang a different tune - one of displacement and transfer ....' (quoting herzl page 22) 'while denying them employment in our country .. both the process of expropriation and he removal of the poor must be carried out discretely and circumspectly"

  • Are there any sources for these assertions?
    – MCW
    Mar 4, 2014 at 12:29
  • Benny Morris on herzl and transfer (righteous victims page 21) 'but in private herzl sang a different tune - one of displacement and transfer ....' (quoting herzl page 22) 'while denying them employment in our country .. both the process of expropriation and he removal of the poor must be carried out discretely and circumspectly"
    – pugsville
    Mar 6, 2014 at 5:30
  • 1
    This coincides with my point about land ownership, the Zionist settlers figured out early on that basically if you can't get people to leave you can buy the land out from under them. With no work, and no land to live on, it was expected that the Arabs would leave and thus the land would belong to the Jews.
    – MichaelF
    Mar 6, 2014 at 14:12
  • actually the polices of denying the local population work, and never selling land back to them were developed in Europe before Palestine was even selected as the zionist target homeland.
    – pugsville
    Sep 6, 2016 at 13:46

The British Empire contained more Muslim subjects than even the Ottoman Empire at its height. In particular, the Muslims of India were bitterly opposed to Zionist immigration. The Indian National Congress supported the 'Khilafat', and later the anti-Zionist position which was also held by King Saud as well as the Egyptian Khedive and the two Hashemite Monarchs.

In other words, permitting increased Jewish immigration attracted the ire of the far more numerous Muslim population- including Muslim rulers and elites within the Empire or else Protectorates or Trucial States with great strategic value. The British were having trouble, all through the Twenties and Thirties with rebellious Muslim Divines and feared a more general 'Jihad'. In particular, the fear was that Britain might be cut off from Persian oil or Malayan rubber- not to mention the revival of Mahdiism in the Sudan and loss of control of the Suez canal. In other words, the geopolitical stakes were high,especially as petrol became of increasing importance.

I may mention that Grand Mufti Husseini was very successful in attracting support from the four corners of the Islamic world.

There were other considerations

1) Mussolini was giving some support to the 'maximalist' Zionists under Jabotinsky. The British were wary of Italian ambition to turn the Mediterranean into 'Mare Nostrum'- an Italian lake.

2) The fear that many East European Jewish immigrants were more inclined to Communism and might be Stalin's pawns.

3) If the Jews were massacred in Mandated Palestine, the Brits would get the blame. One solution would be to give the Jews military training. However most British officers disliked Jews. The exception was Orde Wingate. Still, most Brits took it for granted that the 'savage' Arabs would slaughter the bookish Jews.

4) During the second half of the Thirties, the Brits became aware that, somehow or other, the Jews of Palestine had developed the economic wherewithal to become a successful state. The Palestinians however were lagging behind and could not stand on their own feet. The British favored a system whereby Jews would subsidize the Palestinians. However, if the Jewish population increased then they would not agree to this solution. Thus the Mandate would become an increasingly expensive head-ache for the Brits.


In addition to the excellent answers above, a further source for answers to this question is Tom Segev: One Palestine, Complete, Abacus 2001.

The British Cabinet, and the Foreign Minister, Balfour, may have been persuaded of the wisdom of supporting a Jewish homeland in Palestine, but the Treasury, who were supposed to finance it, and the Colonial Office, who had to run it, were of a different opinion. The Treasury made it clear that the colony had to finance itself, and the Colonial Secretary, Winston Churchill, suggested simply giving it up completely.1

The fact of the matter was, that Palestine couldn't support the tax revenue required to police it adequately as a colony, and that violent opposition to Jewish immigration exacerbated this problem. The British response was to limit further Jewish settlement.

1 Tom Segev: One Palestine, Complete, Abacus 2001, pp.157-8.


Not sure if this is the correct forum to ask this, but I'm currently reading 'Exodus' by Leon Uris, and I'm curious as to why the British were so reluctant in letting Jewish people in Palestine.

It wasn't just the British, the Americans weren't keen about Jewish immigration either despite the threat that Hitler then posed to the Jews in Europe (perhaps thats one reason for the strength of the Israeli lobby in the US - guilt for not doing enough when it mattered). As for Palestine, the Ottoman Empire had a policy on restricting Jewish immigration into Palestine especially after the rise of Zionism; and the British, despite the commitment made in the Balfour declaration simply continued with official Ottoman policy once they realised the strength of Arab opinion.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.