It's Time to Acknowledge the Arab Heritage of Many Israeli Jews | Opinion

A picture shows the entrance to the Magen Abraham synagogue in the Lebanese capital Beirut on August 11, 2009. JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images

I am a daughter of a lost civilization.

My mother was born in Libya, and my father is from Yemen.

Most of the world knows the history of the Jews of Europe, which culminated in the Holocaust, where one-third of the world's Jewish population was wiped out.

But less known or spoken about is the other half of world Jewry, which came from North Africa, the Middle East, and Iran.

These were the world's oldest Jewish communities outside of Israel—some, like the communities in Iraq and Yemen, dating back thousands of years.

This may seem strange in today's war-ravaged Middle East, but for centuries, Jews lived among Arabs in peace and harmony, enriching the region with art, culture and commerce.

Like most things, this history has its good and its bad periods; peaceful neighborly relations were followed by economic discrimination and then deadly violence as thousands of Jews were murdered in violent rioting caused by blood libels and false accusations.

My father Yosef escaped Yemen at the age of 10, and came to Israel as an orphan, where he was adopted by a Polish Jewish family. My mother Aliza came from Libya to Israel at the age of 6, the oldest of 12 brothers and sisters.

Aliza and Yosef were just 2 people among the 850,000 other Jews from Arab countries who were forced to leave their homes.

For seven decades, the story of the Jews from the Arab countries—both the good and the bad—was left largely untold both in Israel and around the world.

Now as a Minister in the Government of Israel, I am working to preserve the rich cultural history of our parents and grandparents from the Arab world.

We've just launched an app allowing Israeli citizens to document the testimony of family members and friends; we've promoted research on this history by academics and historians, we have marked an annual commemoration of the Jewish communities from the Arab countries; and we've made sure this history is in our classroom schoolbooks.

I can say with satisfaction that this important part of history is now with us for good.

It is a critical part of the story of the Jewish people who over centuries of steadfast determination managed to maintain their identity and religion, along with the dream of one day returning to the Holy Land.
In today's ever-changing Middle East, the descendants of Jews of the Arab world, like myself, can serve as emissaries and ambassadors to a better future with the Arab world.

It is rightly said that the past cannot be changed.

But we can and should try to use our Jewish Arab heritage to serve as a bridge for a better tomorrow.

The future is in our power.

The writer is Israel's Minister for Social Equality.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​