What the Somali and other refugees drowned in the Mediterranean are now, Jews were in the 1940s.
A British government White Paper published in May of 1939 restricted Jewish immigration into Palestine to 75,000 for the following five years. It would then cease completely unless the Arabs in the independent Palestine envisaged by the White Paper agreed to further Jewish immigration.
The figure of 75,000 was broken down into: 10,000 per year (but “subject to the criterion of economic absorptive capacity”), plus another 25,000 over the entire five years for “refugee emergencies” (but “subject to adequate provision for their maintenance”).
By this time Hitler had been in power for six years, the Second World War would begin in less than six months, and the “Final Solution” would commence in less than two years.
The Guardian described the White Paper as “a death sentence on tens of thousands of European Jews.”
But there was nothing new about the imposition of such restrictions.
The first British High Commissioner of Palestine had restricted Jewish immigration “in the interests of the present population” and the “absorptive capacity of the country.”
The Churchill White Paper of 1922 and a 1925 government report to the League of Nations both emphasised that immigration was regulated by “the economic capacity of the country to absorb new settlers.”
In 1930 the Simpson Report and the Passfield White Paper (subsequently abandoned) recommended sharp reductions in the level of Jewish immigration, on the basis of a lack of cultivatable land and the high levels of Palestinian unemployment.
After a jump in the number of Jewish immigrants in 1935, due to the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany, the British authorities informed the Jewish Agency (which had assisted many of the immigrants) that less than one third of the quota it had asked for would be approved in 1936.
As a result, immigration slumped from over 65,000 in 1935 to less than 30,000 in 1936.
In 1937 a government statement proposed that Jewish immigration be limited to 8,000 for the period August 1937 to March 1938 “provided that the economic absorptive capacity of the country is not exceeded.”
And two months after the publication of the 1939 White Paper the British government announced a complete suspension of Jewish immigration into Palestine until July of 1940, on the basis that there had been an increase in the level of illegal immigration.
The number of Jewish immigrants fell to around 10,500 in 1940, and to just over 4,500 in 1941.
By the end of 1942, when the Nazis’ “Final Solution” was already known to the Allies, 34,000 of the 75,000 immigration certificates allowed for by the 1939 White Paper were still available. By the end of the war there were still 3,000 certificates left.
Hundreds of Jews died at sea during the war years as they fled Nazi persecution and attempted to reach Palestine with the assistance of Zionist organisations.
On 1 September, the first day of World War Two, a vessel carrying a thousand immigrants was fired on by a Royal Navy destroyer as it tried to sail into Tel Aviv, albeit without causing casualties.
Over 200 died when the “Salvador” sank in the Sea of Marmara in 1940. Nearly 300 died when the paramilitary Haganah organisation planted a bomb on the “Patria” in Haifa harbour to prevent it being towed away by the British. They miscalculated the effect of the explosion and the ship sank in sixteen minutes.
Nearly 800 people on the “Struma” were killed in 1942 when a Soviet submarine torpedoed it after it had been towed out of Istanbul by the Turkish authorities and cast adrift. Some 300 died when a Soviet submarine sank the “Mefkure” in 1944.
Even after the horrors of the Holocaust the British government continued with its policy of restricting Jewish immigration, using diplomatic pressure and naval blockades to prevent Holocaust survivors from reaching Palestine.
According to the British Chief of General Staff in September of 1945: “First and foremost ships must be stopped from sailing from various ports. At the same time, the coast of Palestine must be guarded more vigilantly.”
Zionist organisations continued to challenge the British blockade. But many who set out on such voyages did not reach their destination, or reached it only years later.
Between August 1945 and May 1948 around 120 vessels made nearly 150 voyages to bring Jewish refugees to Palestine, over half of which were intercepted by British vessels.
An estimated 1,600 Jews drowned at sea. Others were killed when the British military boarded their ships. Some 50,000 Jews ended up in British detention camps in Cyprus, Mauritius and Atlit (in Palestine). 28,000 of them were still imprisoned by the time Israel declared independence.
In 1947 the “Exodus”, carrying 4,515 Holocaust survivors, was commandeered by the British off the coast of Palestine. Its passengers were transferred to three other ships — and taken to Hamburg in Germany, where they were forcibly removed from the ships and held in detention camps.
Only with the declaration of the state of Israel in May of 1948 did the British government finally abandon attempts to block Jewish immigration.
But by that time the policy had already directly cost the lives of thousands of would-be immigrants and, indirectly, the lives of many more.