Dani Ishai Behan

2030 US Census: Why Jews Deserve Their Own Box Under ‘Middle Eastern’

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

After more than two decades of socio-political change (and pressure from the Arab-American community), the US Census Bureau appears to be well on its way to establishing a new Middle Eastern/North African category — separate from the “White-American” category we had hitherto been included under — on the 2030 census. As things appear now, this category will encompass all American citizens with ethnic or national origins in the Middle East.

Barring one exception, of course.

Although an “Israeli” check-box can be seen under the new Middle Eastern/North African category on preview sheets, this (presumably) only applies to Americans with Israeli citizenship. Jews whose recent history was spent in exile appear to be left out in the cold.

That is to say, while Jews with Israeli citizenship will be enfranchised under this new category, Jews without Israeli citizenship will not. Not only does this make zero sense (particularly given the category’s function of accounting for race/ethnicity), it is inconsistent with the US Census Bureau’s own categorization framework and, therefore, functionally antisemitic.

This article aims to explain why and, ultimately, elucidate the historical and salutary basis for including Jewish-Americans qua Jewish-Americans under the Middle Eastern-American category in 2030, and on all future censuses.


Jewish presence in the United States can be traced as far back as the colonial period, although Jews did not arrive in large numbers until the late 1800s. The majority of these immigrants were refugees fleeing pogroms and persecution in other Diaspora lands, particularly Eastern Europe. A smaller number consisted of Jewish immigrants directly from Israel (or Mandate Palestine, as it was known then) and from Diaspora lands in other parts of the Middle East.

Owing to the fact that Jews — irrespective of Diaspora history — comprise a single Levantine-Middle Eastern ethnic group, we were collectively targeted (alongside Syrians, Arabs, etc) by American anti-Asian immigration laws in the pre-WWII period. Given the risk of denaturalization and deportation that came with being classified as Asian, MENA-Americans initiated a successful push for all US citizens of MENA ethnic origin to be included under the “White-American” umbrella. That is how Jews came to be classified as “white”.

Moreover, Jewish-American lawyer Simon Wolf advocated to have Jews re-classified as a religious faith — a move that, especially in hindsight, was profoundly damaging. Not only was this categorization a lie, it inadvertently breathed new life into antisemitism and enabled it to survive the zeitgeist transition of the 1960s. Whereas the zeitgeist had previously positioned whiteness as some “inherent good” to aspire to, the post-1960s epoch placed increasing emphasis on human rights, post-colonialism, and racial justice. By framing Jews as white/”European” people of a unique religious faith, we would be excluded from these vital conversations and prevented from using these tools to advocate on our own community’s behalf. Worse yet, by framing us as “white people”, we would be placed in a position of even greater vulnerability – of being held “accountable” for a system we were never actually part of, and for crimes we were not responsible for, but were rather victims of.

But why categorize ethnic Jews as a Middle Eastern-American subgroup? Why is it imperative that we be so categorized? What are the benefits – political, socio-economic, or otherwise – that come with it?

Jews Are A Levantine-Middle Eastern Ethnic Group

The Jewish ethnicity is autochthonous to Israel, which located in the Middle East. Ergo, Jews are a Levantine-Middle Eastern ethnic group. Every aspect of our peoplehood – from our national language to our core culture to our folklore, holidays, alphabet, and spirituality – are specific to the land of Israel.

And if we are to treat the dodgier territory of racial taxonomy as a valid criterion, it should be noted that Ashkenazi Jews (that is, Jews who recently sojourned in Central/Eastern Europe) are more proximate to non-Jewish Levantine populations than to indigenous Europeans. Genetic studies have consistently demonstrated this.

Sociologically, the same holds true. Our culture, our immigration history, and our relationship to white supremacist power structures all dovetail more strongly with that of other Middle Eastern-Americans than with European-Americans.

Middle Eastern-American/European-American Refer To Descent, Not Diaspora History

First, it is important to delineate the differences between descent and Diaspora history. Many people think these concepts refer to the same thing, but they do not.

Descent does not mean “where my family lived before they wound up here”. It refers to ethnic origins. For example, if someone of Nigerian ethnicity immigrates to the US from England or France, would they be categorized as European-American (thus, white-American)? No. Because although their recent Diaspora history occurred in Europe, their ethnic origins are West African. Thus, he/she would be considered African/black-American on the US Census.

Diaspora history, as the term suggests, refers to Diaspora migration route and countries of sojourn. The aforementioned example would be an African-American with Diaspora history in Europe, not an American of European descent.

Now apply this to Jews. Despite our long exile in Europe, our ethnicity and ethnic origins are Middle Eastern, not European. This is why non-convert Jews outside of the Middle East are collectively referred to as ‘Diaspora Jews’. If our origins were European, we would not consider Europe to be Diaspora, nor would we be considered ‘Diaspora Jews’ in virtually all parts of Europe. Conflating Jews with Diaspora history in Poland with Polish-Americans is erasive and, yes, antisemitic.

Jews Are An Ethnic Minority – Categorizing Us As “White” Obfuscates That

In light of the rapid re-emergence/normalization of antisemitism in American culture and the new forms it has taken since WWII, categorizing us as “just a religion” or as “white”/”European”-Americans does our community no favors. If anything, it serves to reify popular antisemitic canards, such as the claim that modern Jews have no roots in Palestine, are not an ethnic group and therefore do not experience racism, and are essentially just a group of “privileged” “white” people. By failing the categorize us appropriately – as a MENA-American community – the US government is actively facilitating antisemitism and making it harder for us to advocate on our own behalf as a non-European ethnic minority community in our own right.

Israelis Are Already Included As MENA

Seeing as Israeli-Americans (i.e. Jews who immigrated to the US directly from Israel) are already counted as Middle Eastern-American, it can be safely argued that Jews writ large are already part of the MENA-American community anyway. Thus, it wouldn’t be a leap to extend this categorization to other Diaspora Jews.

Addressing Counter-Arguments

1. “Jews are a religion; categorizing us as a race threatens our religious freedom and our safety”

If decades of identifying white has not changed white supremacy’s collective mind about us by now, it’s safe to say that nothing ever will. By clinging so tenaciously to this delusion that identifying as white and de-Judaizing ourselves as much as possible will save us from white supremacist Jew-hate, we are betraying ourselves and giving our enemies precisely what they’ve wanted all along – our disappearance as a distinct people.

The post-emancipation dream of ending antisemitism through mass assimilation is just that: a dream. One that has been holding us back for more than a century. One needs to die if we are to achieve any progress at all.

Collectively, we need to stop accommodating bigots and start demanding that we be accepted as we are: and that is, as a Middle Eastern/Levantine ethnic group indigenous to Israel.

2. “Most Jews come from Europe, not the Middle East”

This is incorrect. Most American Jews have Diaspora history in Europe and, as noted above, Diaspora history and origins are categorically not the same thing.

3. “What about converts?”

They don’t have to mark Jewish under the MENA-American box if they do not want to. Presumably, a Jewish box under “religion” will still exist. My aim is not to have that box removed. Rather, I am aiming for a second option that will account for ethnic Jews who may or may not necessarily be religious.

To conclude, it is incumbent on the US Census Bureau to include a Jewish box next to the Israeli one under MENA-American. Categorizing us in any other way would be dangerously inaccurate at best, and pointedly malicious at worst.

About the Author
Half-Irish/half-Jewish American activist, musician, and writer.
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