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BBC Tarek Osman Presenter: The Making of the Modern Arab World  14 December 2013

Sykes and Picot were quintessential "empire men". Both were aristocrats, seasoned in colonial administration, and crucially believers in the notion that the people of the region would be better off under the European empires.

Both men also had intimate knowledge of the Middle East.

The key tenets of the agreement they had negotiated in relative haste amidst the turmoil of the World War One continue to influence the region to this day. But while Sykes-Picot's straight lines had proved significantly helpful to Britain and France in the first half of the twentieth century, their impact on the region's peoples was quite different.

The map that the two men drew divided the land that had been under Ottoman rule since the early 16th Century into new countries - and relegated these political entities to two spheres of influence:

The two men were not mandated to redraw the borders of the Arab countries in North Africa, but the division of influence existed there as well, with Egypt under British rule, and France controlling the Maghreb.


But there were three problems with the geo-political order that emerged from the Sykes-Picot agreement.

First, it was secret without any Arabic knowledge, and it negated the main promise that Britain had made to the Arabs in the 1910s - that if they rebelled against the Ottomans, the fall of that empire would bring them independence.

When that independence did not materialise after World War One, and as these colonial powers, in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, continued to exert immense influence over the Arab world, the thrust of Arab politics - in North Africa and in the eastern Mediterranean - gradually but decisively shifted from building liberal constitutional governance systems (as Egypt, Syria, and Iraq had witnessed in the early decades of the 20th Century) to assertive nationalism whose main objective was getting rid of the colonialists and the ruling systems that worked with them.

This was a key factor behind the rise of the militarist regimes that had come to dominate many Arab countries from the 1950s until the 2011 Arab uprisings.


The second problem lay in the tendency to draw straight lines.

The newly created borders did not correspond to the actual sectarian, tribal, or ethnic distinctions on the ground

Sykes-Picot intended to divide the Levant on a sectarian basis:

Geography helped.

For the period from the end of the Crusades up until the arrival of the European powers in the 19th Century, and despite the region's vibrant trading culture, the different sects effectively lived separately from each other.

But the thinking behind Sykes-Picot did not translate into practice. That meant the newly created borders did not correspond to the actual sectarian, tribal, or ethnic distinctions on the ground.

These differences were buried, first under the Arabs' struggle to eject the European powers, and later by the sweeping wave of Arab nationalism.


In the period from the late 1950s to the late 1970s, and especially during the heydays of Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser (from the Suez Crisis in 1956 to the end of the 1960s) Arab nationalism gave immense momentum to the idea that a united Arab world would dilute the socio-demographic differences between its populations.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the Arab world's strong men - for example, Hafez Assad and Saddam Hussein in the Levant and Col Muammar Gaddafi in North Africa - suppressed the differences, often using immense brutality.

But the tensions and aspirations that these differences gave rise to neither disappeared nor were diluted. When cracks started to appear in these countries - first by the gradual disappearance of these strong men, later by several Arab republics gradually becoming hereditary fiefdoms controlled by small groups of economic interests, and most recently after the 2011 uprisings - the old frictions, frustrations, and hopes that had been concealed for decades, came to the fore.


The third problem was that the state system that was created after the World War One has exacerbated the Arabs' failure to address the crucial dilemma they have faced over the past century and half - the identity struggle between, on one hand nationalism and secularism, and on the other, Islamism (and in some cases Christianism).

 founders of the Arab liberal age - from the late 19th Century to the 1940s - created state institutions (for example a secular constitution in Tunisia in 1861 and the beginnings of a liberal democracy in Egypt in the inter-war period), and put forward a narrative that many social groups (especially in the middle classes) supported - but failed to weave the piousness, conservatism, and religious frame of reference of their societies into the ambitious social modernisation they had led.

And despite major advancements in industrialisation, the dramatic inequity between the upper middle classes and the vast majority of the populations continued. The strong men of Arab nationalism championed - with immense popular support - a different (socialist, and at times militarist) narrative, but at the expense of civil and political freedoms.

And for the past four decades, the Arab world has lacked any national project or serious attempt at confronting the contradictions in its social fabric.


That state structure was poised for explosion, and the changing demographics proved to be the trigger. Over the past four decades, the Arab world has doubled its population, to over 330 million people, two-thirds of them are under 35 years old.

This is a generation that has inherited acute socio-economic and political problems that it did not contribute to, and yet has been living its consequences - from education quality, job availability, economic prospects, to the perception of the future.

At core, the wave of Arab uprisings that commenced in 2011 is this generation's attempt at changing the consequences of the state order that began in the aftermath of World War One.

This currently unfolding transformation entails the promise of a new generation searching for a better future, and the peril of a wave of chaos that could engulf the region for several years.

The Making of the Arab World, presented by Tarek Osman, can be found on the BBC Radio 4 websiteS

The Sykes-Picot carve-up led to a century of turbulence
Economist May 14th 2016  This article appeared in the Special Report section of the print edition

The modern frontiers of the Arab world only vaguely resemble the blue and red grease-pencil lines secretly drawn on a map of the Levant in May 1916, at the height of the first world war. Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot were appointed by the British and French governments respectively to decide how to apportion the lands of the Ottoman empire, which had entered the war on the side of Germany and the central powers. The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Sazonov, was also involved. The war was not going well at the time. The British had withdrawn from Gallipoli in January 1916 and their forces had just surrendered at the siege of Kut in Mesopotamia in April.

Still, the Allies agreed that Russia would get Istanbul, the sea passages from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean and Armenia; the British would get Basra and southern Mesopotamia; and the French a slice in the middle, including Lebanon, Syria and Cilicia (in modern-day Turkey). Palestine would be an international territory. In between the French- and British-ruled blocs, large swathes of territory, mostly desert, would be allocated to the two powers’ respective spheres of influence. Italian claims were added in 1917.

But after the defeat of the Ottomans in 1918 these lines changed markedly with the fortunes of war and diplomacy (see map). The Turks, under Kemal Pasha Ataturk, pushed foreign troops out of Anatolia. Mosul was at first apportioned to France, then claimed by Turkey and subsequently handed to Britain, which attached it to the future Iraq. One reason for the tussle was the presence of oil. Even before the war, several Arab territories—Egypt, north Africa and stretches of the Arabian Gulf—had already been parcelled off as colonies or protectorates.

Even so, Sykes-Picot has become a byword for imperial treachery. George Antonius, an Arab historian, called it a shocking document, the product of “greed allied to suspicion and so leading to stupidity”. It was, in fact, one of three separate and irreconcilable wartime commitments that Britain made to France, the Arabs and the Jews. The resulting contradictions have been causing grief ever since.

In the end the Arabs, who had been led to expect a great Hashemite kingdom ruled from Damascus, got several statelets instead. The Maronite Christians got greater Lebanon, but could not control it. The Kurds, who wanted a state for themselves, failed to get one and were split up among four countries. The Jews got a slice of Palestine.

The Hashemites, who had led an Arab revolt against the Ottomans with help from the British (notably T.E. Lawrence), were evicted from Syria by the French. They also lost their ancestral fief of the Hejaz, with its holy cities of Mecca and Medina, to Abdel Aziz bin Saud, a chieftain from the Nejd, who was backed by Britain. Together with his Wahhabi religious zealots, he founded Saudi Arabia. One branch of the Hashemites went on to rule Iraq, but the king, Faisal II, was murdered in 1958; another branch survives in a little kingdom called Transjordan, now plain Jordan, hurriedly partitioned off from Palestine by the British.

Israel, forged in war in 1948, fought and won more battles against Arab states in 1956, 1967 and 1973. But its invasion of Lebanon in 1982 was a fiasco. The Palestinians, scattered across the Middle East, fought a civil war in Jordan in 1970 and helped start the one in Lebanon in 1975. Syria intervened in 1976 and did not leave Lebanon until forced out by an uprising in 2005. More than two decades of “peace process” between Israel and Palestine, starting with the Oslo accords of 1993, have produced an unhappy archipelago of autonomous areas in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Morocco marched into the western Sahara when the Spanish departed in 1975. The year after Iran’s Islamic revolution of 1979, Iraq started a war that lasted eight years. It then invaded Kuwait in 1990, but was evicted by an American-led coalition.

The Suez Canal and vast oil reserves kept the region at the forefront of cold-war geopolitics. France and Britain colluded with Israel in the war against Egypt in 1956 but were forced back by America. Yet America soon became the predominant external power, acting as Israel’s main armourer and protector. After Egypt defected from the Soviet camp, America oversaw the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 1979. It intervened in Lebanon in 1958 and again in 1982. American warships protected oil tankers in the Gulf during the Iran-Iraq war. And having pushed Iraq out of Kuwait in 1991, America stayed on in Saudi Arabia to maintain no-fly zones over Iraq. In response to al-Qaeda’s attacks on Washington and New York in September 2001, America invaded Afghanistan in the same year and then Iraq in 2003.

“Lots of countries have strange borders,” says Rami Khouri of the American University of Beirut. “Yet for Arabs, Sykes-Picot is a symbol of a much deeper grievance against colonial tradition. It is about a whole century in which Western powers have played with us and were involved militarily.”


In 1917 the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Balfour, issued the Balfour Declaration  (See ‘A Line in the Sand’ by James Barr and Behind the Balfour Declaration by the Institute for Historical Review



1799   NAPOLEON Bonaparte during his invasion of the Levant invited all Jews to settle in Palestine.  He was defeated by the British and with it the French version of the Balfour Declaration

1841    British letter was sent from Damascus to Moses Chaim the leader of the British Jewish community for Jews to settle in Palestine.  First settlements from 1860 but remained almost empty.  Planned stalled.  British Foreign Office convinced time was not then.  Christian zionists from France, Germany, Russia and the USA were establishing settlements. American Christian Zionist, William E Blackstone, led to a conference in Chicago, 1890

1891  Petition to American President Benjamin Harrison saying ‘Palestine Must Return to the Jews’.  Never issued

1896 ‘The State of the Jews’ by Theodore Herzl

1898   German Balfour-Like Declaration by Kaiser who wanted Jews to emigrate discussed with the Sultan who turned down the idea.

1903  Russian Balfour-like declaration in a letter to Herzl

1903   British plan by Arthur Balfour (then PM) to resettle Jews in Kenya/  6th Zionist Con ference approved the Plan.  Failed but provided a precendent that the British were willing to provide transport and a home for the Zionists.

Beginning of WW!   British idea to help Jews to emigrate to Palestine who would provide support in a strategically important area and the biblical idea God to expedite salvation and the return of Christ

1917    France issues Declaration

1917    British Balfour Declaration endorsed by major world powers and the Pope.


The nearest the British came to implementing the Declaration was the Peel Commission in 1937 which split Palestine between the Jews and Arabs.  This was rejected by the Arabs.  After WW2 the Brish decided to end its mandate and passed what would happen next to the United Nations who came up with their own plan to split the country between the Jews and Arabs. This was accepted by the Jews and rejected by the Arabs and saw the Arab - Israel War


History, by James Renton, Senior Lecturer in History at Edge Hill University, and an Honorary Research Fellow at University College London

The Balfour Declaration of 2 November 1917 is commonly regarded as a seminal moment in the history of Zionism, Palestine and the Middle East. The letter sent by A.J. Balfour, the British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, to Lord Rothschild, the Anglo-Jewish figurehead, stated that the British Government viewed with favour ‘the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’, and that it would ‘use its best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object’. Soon after, on 9 December 1917, British imperial forces captured Jerusalem. Ending just over four hundred years of Ottoman rule, Britain occupied the rest of the country by the end of the war, and was awarded the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine in 1920.

Britain’s commitment to the establishment of a Jewish national home in the Holy Land became the basis of the terms of the Mandate, which was to last for almost three decades. During this formative period of colonial rule, the foundations of the Jewish State, and the Zionist-Palestinian conflict, were firmly established.

The reasons behind the Declaration have been a matter of controversy ever since it was issued. At the time, British policy-makers were at pains to emphasise their sympathy for the plight of the Jewish people and their intention to restore the Jewish nation to its homeland. This supposed act of benevolence stemmed, it was claimed, from a longstanding tradition of British philosemitism and support for the Zionist cause.

Although this myth has been of continuing influence, historians have tended to emphasise the political and diplomatic motives behind the Declaration. One reason for supporting Zionism was that it would help secure post-war British control of Palestine, which was strategically important as a buffer to Egypt and the Suez Canal. This was certainly the view held by some in favour of the Declaration, such as Prime Minister David Lloyd George. For others, their interest in Zionism had nothing to do with Britain’s strategic interests in the Middle East. Balfour did not even consider that Britain should control Palestine after the war, let alone use Zionism to that end.

The single motive uniting all of the makers of the Declaration was the desire to harness Jewish support for the war effort, particularly in Russia and the USA. With the threat of revolution in the former and the need to ensure the full support of the latter, Jewish influence in these countries was thought to have been important for the British cause.

Behind this policy were two erroneous assumptions. The first was the misconception that Jews held a powerful influence in Russia, the USA and elsewhere. The second was the belief that publicly advocating Zionism was the best way to curry Jewish favour. Despite the marked growth of the Zionist movement during the war, the majority of Jews were far from being committed Zionists.

The idea that world Jewry wielded tremendous influence, as believed by Balfour, Lloyd George and others in the Government, derived from widespread antisemitic prejudice within the British Establishment. Similarly, the belief that the Jews were a nation in and of themselves came in part from antisemitic views of the Jews as a clannish people. Antisemitism was, however, only one part of the picture.

The Balfour Declaration belonged to a wider phenomenon of British propaganda policies during the First World War towards ethnic groups, or ‘races’ as they were called at the time, particularly in the USA. These policies were driven by similar mistaken assumptions.

The financial and material support of the United States was of critical significance for the European war effort, and as such it became the centre of the propaganda war between the Allies and the Central Powers. As part of this wider struggle, the British attempted to win the backing of a number of minority groups — in particular Poles, Jews and Irish — who were thought to wield influence in American society and politics. It was commonly felt by policy-makers that the promise of national freedom was the key to winning over the supposed power of these Diasporic communities. Indeed, such was the importance placed on Irish-American opinion, that it propelled efforts by Lloyd George to obtain — unsuccessfully — an agreement on one of the most controversial issues facing the British empire: Home Rule for Ireland.

Seeking to capture the loyalty of the Arab world, the British also supported Arab nationalism, a policy which began in earnest with the infamous McMahon-Hussein correspondence of 1915 and 1916. Similarly, in the final year of the war, encouragement was given to movements for national self-determination in Central and Eastern Europe. In all these cases, ‘races’ were wrongly thought to be cohesive groups that could be inspired to support the Allies by an appeal to their nationalist identities. In reality, nationalism — whether Jewish, Arab, Polish or Irish — was not the all-consuming passion for these communities that it was thought to be in Whitehall.

The Balfour Declaration was not, however, simply the by-product of mistaken perceptions in the British Government. These perceptions were turned into policy through the tireless efforts of Jewish activists. Faced with the many challenges of war, the British Government was reactive in its dealings with Zionism. Although their perceptions of Jews predisposed members of the Government to a pro-Zionist policy, they had to be persuaded and coaxed into action.

From the end of 1915, a number of politically-engaged Jews successfully identified and manipulated the British Government’s misconceived pre-occupation with securing Jewish influence, eventually convincing the Government that a pro-Zionist agenda was the best means by which to do so. These individuals included Horace Kallen, an American academic; Lucien Wolf, the journalist and political lobbyist; Moses Gaster, the religious head of the British Sephardi community; Vladimir Jabotinsky, who was agitating for the creation of a Jewish Legion; and Chaim Weizmann, who, with Nahum Sokolow, was the official Zionist conduit with the Government from the beginning of 1917.

In addition to these individual efforts, the leaders of the Zionist movement in the United States and Russia made a significant contribution to persuading British policy-makers by driving the expansion of the organisation. The growth of the Zionist movement in these countries provided important evidence for policy-makers, confirming their belief that Zionism was a popular cause throughout world Jewry.

What was the result of all these efforts? There are those who have argued that the Declaration was intended by the British Government to lead to nothing less than the creation of a Jewish state. In fact, there was no agreement by the Cabinet when the Declaration was approved regarding Britain’s post-war policy towards Zionism, nor were there any discussions as to how, exactly, the Government might ‘facilitate’ the ‘establishment in Palestine of a national home’. The primary concern of the Cabinet was not, after all, the future of Zionism and Palestine, but gaining Jewish backing for the Allies.

By the war’s end, the future for Palestine, like much of the Middle East, remained unclear. Not only did its fate have to be agreed upon by the Great Powers, but the British themselves had not formulated a clear post-war Zionist policy. The great achievement of the Zionists was during this post-war period, when they managed to obtain the final terms of the Mandate. It was only then that the British became committed to secure — not to facilitate, as was stipulated in the Declaration — the establishment of the Jewish national home, to cooperate with a Jewish agency to that end, and to facilitate Jewish immigration and settlement on the land. It was on this basis that the Zionist movement was able to establish the foundations of what would eventually become the Jewish state.

Balfour Declaration, UNITED KINGDOM [1917]
The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica, 6-29-2010

Balfour Declaration, (Nov. 2, 1917), statement of British support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” It was made in a letter from Arthur James Balfour, the British foreign secretary, to Lionel Walter Rothschild, 2nd Baron Rothschild (of Tring), a leader of British Jewry. Though the precise meaning of the correspondence has been disputed, its statements were generally contradictory to both the Sykes-Picot Agreement (a secret convention between Britain and France) and the Ḥusayn-McMahon correspondence (an exchange of letters between the British high commissioner in Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, and Ḥusayn ibn ʿAlī, then emir of Mecca), which in turn contradicted one another (see Palestine, World War I and after).

The Balfour Declaration, issued through the continued efforts of Chaim Weizmann and Nahum Sokolow, Zionist leaders in London, fell short of the expectations of the Zionists, who had asked for the reconstitution of Palestine as “the” Jewish national home. The declaration specifically stipulated that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” The document, however, said nothing of the political or national rights of these communities and did not refer to them by name. Nevertheless, the declaration aroused enthusiastic hopes among Zionists and seemed the fulfillment of the aims of the World Zionist Organization (see Zionism).

The British government hoped that the declaration would rally Jewish opinion, especially in the United States, to the side of the Allied powers against the Central Powers during World War I (1914–18). They hoped also that the settlement in Palestine of a pro-British Jewish population might help to protect the approaches to the Suez Canal in neighbouring Egypt and thus ensure a vital communication route to British colonial possessions in India.

The Balfour Declaration was endorsed by the principal Allied powers and was included in the British mandate over Palestine, formally approved by the newly created League of Nations on July 24, 1922. In May 1939 the British government altered its policy in a White Paper recommending a limit of 75,000 further immigrants and an end to immigration by 1944, unless the resident Palestinian Arabs of the region consented to further immigration. Zionists condemned the new policy, accusing Britain of favouring the Arabs. This point was made moot by the outbreak of World War II (1939–45) and the founding of the State of Israel in 1948.


BBC RADIO   The Making of the Modern Arab World, Tarek Osman, 4 parts

FT Review   ‘A Line in the Sand’ by James Barr

TIME   Sykes-Picot: The Centenary of A Deal That Did Not Shape the Middle East

Harvey Morris May 13, 2016


Go To
The Failures of the International Community in the Middle East since
the Sykes-Picot Agreement, 1916-2016
- by Amb. Freddy Eytan

At ‘The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs’
Shows original Sykes-Picot map

The original secret Sykes-Picot map
of 1916:

The Sykes-Picot Deal, 1916

A" would go to France, "B" to Britain.
A map marked with crude chinagraph-pencil in the second decade of the 20th Century shows the ambition - and folly - of the 100-year old British-French plan
that helped create the modern-day Middle East.

Straight lines make uncomplicated borders.
Most probably that was the reason why most of the lines that
Mark Sykes, representing the British government,
and Francois Georges-Picot, from the French government,
agreed upon in 1916 were straight ones.

At a meeting in Downing Street, Mark Sykes pointed to a map and told the Prime Minister: "I should like to draw a line from the "e" in Acre to the last "k" in Kirkuk."

Contemplating the dirt barrier between Lebanon and Syria