Skip To Content
Breaking News

U.S. Census May Add Controversial ‘Israeli’ Category

Does being Jewish mean being part of a race? Or a religion? What ethnicity are Jews? Many American Jews have found these questions difficult to answer every 10 years, when a census taker knocks on the door as part of the decennial national head count.

The only choices: “white, black or Asian” for race and, under ethnicity, “Hispanic/Latino” don’t quite fit the way many American Jews – and others – see themselves. Religion is not asked about at all, for reasons rooted both in privacy concerns and objections by American Jewry in the years immediately following the Holocaust.

Now the United States Census Bureau is testing a new category, “Middle East-North Africa” or MENA, in response to more than three decades of lobbying by Arab American organizations for a designation that better represents them. The testing, to start in September, will refine wording and sub-categories for the 2020 census. Nineteen options will be offered under the MENA designation, among them Israeli and Palestinian, as well as Egyptian, Syrian, Lebanese, Turkish, Iranian, Moroccan and Algerian. Even Sudanese and Somali are being considered.

“Most Arabs don’t consider themselves white,” said Samer Khalaf, national president of The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, which has long lobbied for a more accurate label than “white.” Khalaf was one of 30 participants in a May 29 meeting convened by the U.S. Census Bureau so that researchers and representatives of MENA communities could discuss and offer feedback on the proposed changes.

“It’s a little arrogant for the government to dictate to any citizens what you should be identified as,” Khalaf told Haaretz later. “The MENA category was a bit of a compromise for us. In a perfect world we’d have an Arab category.” Instead, they agreed to settle on the geography-based MENA designation.

At least some in the Israeli-American community welcome the addition of a MENA option, though others prefer not to label themselves.

At a time when notions of race and ethnicity in America, like gender, are increasingly fluid, what will the addition of this category mean for the American Jewish community? If Israelis choose to be identified as part of MENA, will that in any way separate them from American Jews who opt for “white?”

And as the meaning of race is being refracted through the lens of the Rachel Dolezal scandal, after the head of the Spokane, WA NAACP chapter was outed as white, though she long identified as black, will these census changes serve to clarify ethnic identity in America or cloud the issues further?

“Every census since the first in 1790 has asked about race, and every decade has struggled to draw an increasingly complicated portrait of Americans that takes into account how people see themselves and how they are seen in government data,” said D’Vera Cohn, a census expert at the Pew Research Center. “In the early U.S., race issues were black and white. Now, with growing immigration from around the world, increased intermarriage and more children being born to couples of different races, the race and ethnicity question has gotten vastly more complicated than it used to be. Race used to be regarded as fixed. You were one race for your lifetime. Now race and ethnicity can change and often reflect the times we live in.”

The census needs to catch up, admits a senior U.S. Census Bureau official.

“The country is diversifying. Increasingly our current questions are not working very well. Increasingly we have more Americans not answering the race question,” said Roberto Ramirez, assistant division chief of special population statistics at the Census Bureau. “We’re testing the MENA category because it’s coming from the community.”

Roberto Ramirez, assistant division chief of special population statistics at the Census Bureau. (Credit: Census Bureau)

Respondents choose to identify however they wish to have their race and ethnicity recorded.

“Two people of the same background might have different ways of identifying” themselves on the same census questionnaire, said Steven Gold, a sociologist at Michigan State University who studies Israelis in the U.S.

Steven Gold, a sociologist at Michigan State University who studies Israelis in the U.S. (Credit: Lisa Gold)

It was only in 2000 that the census questionnaire for the first time did not require respondents to choose between racial and ethnic identities. Rather, they could select all that applied, like “black and Hispanic” or “white and Latino,” said Shaul Kelner, associate professor of sociology and Jewish studies at Vanderbilt University. Now people will be able to choose, for instance, “white” and “MENA,” or just “MENA.”

Census data is used to enforce civil rights and voting rights laws, and by scholars and interest groups to track the size and characteristics of various communities, from education and income to employment, housing patterns and Internet use. “We allocate billions of dollars to state and local governments based on these counts,” said Ramirez.

The last change to the race and ethnicity categories was in 1970, when Hispanic was added as an option to some questionnaires. In 1980 it became part of the form distributed to every household. While the census bureau is testing MENA and other issues under consideration for changes in the 2020 census, ultimately it is up to the White House Office of Management and Budget and the U.S. Congress to approve new classifications, Ramirez said.

To date, the only way to glean the contours of foreign-born communities has been through a census question asking where respondents were born. But that doesn’t capture people’s real sense of national/racial/ethnic identity, particularly when it comes to a country like Israel, where people are often born in other countries and there is a great deal of mobility.

Oren Heiman, chairperson of Moatza Mekomit, was part of the May 29 census meeting in Washington and is a good illustration of some of the unique challenges of Israeli identity: Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, he moved to Israel at the age of 9, where he lived in Herziliya until age 30. Now an attorney in New York, Heiman has lived here for many years and is returning shortly to Israel with his wife and infant daughter. Since he previously answered American-born, until now he would not have been counted by the U.S. government as Israeli, though it is very much the way he identifies himself.

“How do you count people who deem themselves Israeli, have Israeli citizenship, did the military, speak Hebrew at home and children who have both parents Israeli? Now if you have a MENA category, with Israeli in a drop-down menu, they can,” he said in an interview.

But some Israelis don’t even like the notion of being identified that way on a U.S. Census.

Ronit Lavi was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, to a Jewish mother and Lithuanian father. She emigrated to Israel alone as a young teenager, becoming religious, and Hebraized her name. Lavi, who is now a physical therapist in Brooklyn and lives in Sheepshead Bay, a heavily Russian-Jewish neighborhood, stayed in Israel for 16 years. Blond and with a fair complexion, she was catcalled by Israeli men and teenagers when she lived in Jerusalem.

“Israel was the place where I experienced my first racial issues,” Lavi, the mother of a 5-year-old daughter, told Haaretz. “It was frustrating how often I was referred to as ‘Russian,’ whether it was on the streets or in public offices. Israel was the place where eventually, the sense of alienation and differentiation made me re-think the concept of national belonging,” she said.

Today she would prefer not to be identified with one nationality or race on a census. “In our post-modern world, it’s unnecessary and antiquated to adhere to geographical boundaries and national identities,” said Lavi, who is finishing the process of becoming a U.S. citizen.

The addition of new census categories will be good for the Jews beyond Israeli Americans, said demographer Steven M. Cohen.

In America, with its “melting pot” orientation, Jews assimilate more rapidly than do fellow tribe members in Canada, Great Britain or Australia, which have smaller Jewish populations but cultures more sympathetic to the perpetuation of ethnic group ties, Cohen said.

“Being unwelcoming of the perpetuation of ethnic identity actually speeds up Jewish assimilation,” he told Haaretz. “Jews have an interest in an America which is more vividly Hispanic, Hindu, Muslim and Middle Eastern. This would be a small blow in favor of recognizing ethnic variation in America, which in the long run will survive as a distinct ethnic group.”

“Anything that fosters ethnic identity in America actually helps Jewish continuity,” he said. “It makes the culture more empathetic to perpetuation of ethnic group ties.”

In Jewish population studies most, though far from all, American Jews say they are Jewish by religion. And no race/ethnicity category, by itself, can fully reflect the truth of what it means to be Jewish.

“Faced with a census form and the mental images of a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, a black Baptist, a Korean Buddhist or a Hispanic Catholic, white, black, Asian and Sephardi Jews might have some conflicted feelings,” said Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, in an email. “While Judaism is a religion, the Jewish people is a people. Peoplehood, at least Jewish peoplehood, transcends ethnicity and race.”

The last time the federal government asked about religion was 1957, said Alan Cooperman, director of religion research at the Pew Research Center, in a population survey rather than decennial census. Subsequently “there was a debate and a number of religious groups and civil liberties groups asked that the census not ask about religion, as a violation of church and state or intrusion on privacy.”

Concepts of race and ethnicity have a complicated, terrible history for Jews, and American Jewish organizations were among those opposed to census questions about religion.

“Original Jewish concerns about the census related to Nuremberg laws,” said Marc Stern, general counsel to the American Jewish Committee. Germany’s Nazi government used information from its own census to track down Jews. “Putting it on the census implies somehow that the government has some interest in knowing the religion of its citizens. I don’t know how it resonates in 2015, but the idea in the 1930s, 40s and 50s was fears that if the government knew what religion people were they might use that against them.”

Yet “there was a time when Jews referred to themselves as the Hebrew race,” noted Kelner.

“American Jews want to maintain a distinct identity and on the other hand want to be fully integrated into broader society and don’t want the distinctiveness to come at a price,” Kelner said. “Being marked on the census as Jewish gives you more information. It affirms the difference. Maybe it will have some type of legal consequences and benefits. But on the other hand, it goes against a century-plus of how American Jews have managed that tension.”

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning, nonprofit journalism during this critical time.

Now more than ever, American Jews need independent news they can trust, with reporting driven by truth, not ideology. We serve you, not any ideological agenda.

At a time when other newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall and invested additional resources to report on the ground from Israel and around the U.S. on the impact of the war, rising antisemitism and the protests on college campuses.

Readers like you make it all possible. Support our work by becoming a Forward Member and connect with our journalism and your community.

Make a gift of any size and become a Forward member today. You’ll support our mission to tell the American Jewish story fully and fairly. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.