The British White Paper of 1939, passed on the eve of the destruction of European Jewry, was a death sentence for tens of thousands of Jews who wanted to escape the Holocaust.
Illegal ships of Jews continued to attempt to infiltrate Palestine, and most were turned away - often to tragic consequence. Even as the situation grew more and more dire, British officials remained adamant in severely limiting the number of Jews who could enter Palestine.
On February 7, 1940, Vernon Bartlett asked that the ban on immigration be lifted. The answer, by Malcolm MacDonald, alleged that there was a danger associated with illegal immigration:
Mr. Bartlett asked the Secretary of State for the Colonies whether he is aware that the tragic plight of some 2,000 Jewish refugees now marooned in small barges on the Danube is due mainly to the fact that shipowners are threatened with confiscation of their ships and imprisonment of their crews if captured near the Palestine shore; and will he consider raising the ban on further immigrants to Palestine to cover these victims of Nazi racial doctrines?This supposed fear of enemy agents became an actual allegation in a debate on March 20, even though no proof was offered:
Mr. M. MacDonald I understand that reports have reached the Foreign Office that a number of Jews who were on their way to embark at a Rumanian port on a ship chartered for the purpose of carrying illegal immigrants to Palestine were recently stranded on the Danube. It is well known that masters and crews of ships engaged in this illegal traffic are liable to imprisonment and the ships to confiscation.
...The normal objections to illegal immigration are increased in time of war owing to the danger of enemy agents travelling to Palestine by this means. In the circumstances I cannot adopt the hon. Member's suggestion.
Mr. Stokes asked the Secretary of State for the Colonies whether he is aware that amongst the Jewish illegal immigrants into Palestine there are German citizens, many of whom are German spies; and what steps he proposes to take to stop this illegal traffic on that account?No answer is recorded.
Mr. M. MacDonald: Yes, Sir. Though local inquiries have not yet produced conclusive proof, the High Commissioner has strong reasons for suspecting that the passengers of two ships which about a month ago landed illegal immigrants in Palestine included German agents. These persons, together with other illegal immigrants, are held in detention camps. As regards the second part of the Question, His Majesty's Government and the Palestine Government are taking various measures to suppress the traffic in illegal immigrants.
§Mr. T. Williams Will the right hon. Gentleman state exactly what he implies when he states that many of these illegal immigrants may or may not be German spies?
Mr. MacDonald I cannot add to the answer which I have given, which was that the High Commissioner has strong reasons to suppose, from information at his disposal, that some of these people are German agents.
§Mr. Shinwell Can the Minister say how many have been detained?
Mr. MacDonald Some hundreds.
§Mr. Lipson Has my right hon. Friend any reason to believe that these German agents are Jews?
Mr. MacDonald As I say, we have not any conclusive proof, but from the information we have received we understand that there are strong possibilities that some of the Jewish members of these parties are German agents.
§Mr. Leach Would they not be in serious danger of their lives in such company in such a ship?
This allegation was followed up on April 3:
Mr. T. Williams asked the Secretary of State for the Colonies how many of the several hundred illegal immigrants into Palestine, who were detained as suspected German agents, have been charged with this offence; and with what result?
§The Secretary of State for the Colonies (Mr. Malcolm MacDonald) As I made clear in my reply to the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes) on 20th March, only a portion of the illegal immigrants recently landed in Palestine who are held in detention camps are suspected of being German agents. While the High Commissioner has strong reasons for his suspicions, inquiries have not yet produced conclusive proof.
§Mr. Williams Can the right hon. Gentleman say when the High Commissioner is likely to obtain sufficient evidence?Macdonals insists that evidence exists that German agents are among the detained Jews, but even weeks after their detention he cannot reveal any details, nor can he even say that any evidence is conclusive.
§Mr. MacDonald I could not say.
§Mr. Williams Is the right hon. Gentleman not aware that this suspicion casts grave reflection upon large numbers of people; and does he not think it is incumbent on the High Commissioner at the earliest possible moment to clear those who are not in any way identified in spying on behalf of Germany or anybody else?
§Mr. MacDonald I am sure that the High Commissioner will share that wish, but in present circumstances it may not be possible to get conclusive proof, and we must give the benefit of the doubt to the State in those circumstances.
§Mr. Mander Is it not the case that certain Jewish organisations have offered to do everything in their power to prevent these German agents getting in, and that their offer of assistance has not been taken up by the Colonial Office?
§Mr. MacDonald I am not aware of that, and I am certain that if offers of help have been made they have been accepted.
And he never did return to the topic. As far as I can tell, not one Jewish immigrant was charged with spying for Germany.
But there was one postscript. On April 3, as seen above, MacDonald claimed that any offers of help by Jewish organizations to help vet the immigrants for German ties would be welcomed. He was lying.
From the April 17 debates:
Mr. Mander asked the Secretary of State for the Colonies what reply was sent to the New Zionist organisation which, on 14th February, offered to assist him in weeding out German agents from among illegal immigrants into Palestine?From all evidence, the British authorities in Palestine made up the charge that there were Jewish German spies, and they used this bogus charge to punish all Jews attempting to flee the Holocaust in 1940.
Mr. M. MacDonald His Majesty's Government naturally felt unable to entertain this offer from a body which is known to be engaged in promoting this illegal traffic.
§Mr. Mander Did not the right hon. Gentleman say the other day that he had received no offer of assistance and that if he did, he would be prepared to accept it?
Mr. MacDonald It depends entirely on the value of the offer. We regard this particular offer as valueless.
UPDATE: Yisrael Medad adds:
a) this was highlighted previously, most notably in Bernard Wasserstein's book, Great Britain and the Jews of Europe, http://www.amazon.com/Britain-Europe-1939-1945-Bernard-Wasserstein/dp/0718501829, where you can read the internal FO telegrams and missives which stopped even children & youth from exiting Europe due to that espionage charge.
But worse was the Jewish establishment attitude. In Zaar's book, (http://www.alibris.com/booksearch?qwork=5701150&matches=6&cm_sp=works*listing*title) you can read in the Appendix, pgs. 280-285, how Henry Montor, Exec. Vice-Chair of the UJA, argued against Revisionist illegal immigration because criminals and prostitutes were among those fleeing. And that those organizing the escape via the boats, were in it for ... profit. He wrote also (the letter was to a rabbi in Maryland) stating that "Palestine cannot be flooded with … old people or with undesirables." The letter is dated February 1, 1940.