A US census taker during the 2020 census. (Photo/US Census Bureau)
A US census taker during the 2020 census. (Photo/US Census Bureau)

Are Jews white? Proposed census change wades into issue

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Are Jews white? By the next U.S. census in 2030, the answer may be trickier than ever for a whole group of Jews, according to a proposal to change how the federal government collects information.

Earlier this year, the Office of the Chief Statistician proposed moving the section known as MENA, Middle Eastern and North African heritage, out of the “white” category. Its adoption would create a curious split in how some American Jews identify themselves.

Currently, the federal government counts all Jews as white, except Jews of color who select a non-white category in the census. As it stands, the white category “specifically includes in its definition those having origins in any of the original peoples of the Middle East or North Africa,” among them people with Israeli heritage, according to the proposal’s background information.

However, it notes: “Research suggests that many MENA respondents view their identity as distinct from White,” with examples that “include, but are not limited to, Lebanese, Iranian, Egyptian, Syrian, Moroccan, and Israeli.”

In particular, moving Israeli heritage to a non-white category would present an interesting wrinkle.

Consider two hypothetical Jewish Americans: Yoel’s grandparents left Russia for Israel, but then his parents moved from Israel to the U.S. Noa’s grandparents emigrated from Russia to the U.S. In this scenario, with his Israeli heritage, Yoel could choose the non-white category, while Noa could not.

“Thinking about the implications for Jewish Americans and how they’re going to be counted — or how they’re going to choose to self-identify — I think probably the bottom line, at least as I see it, is it’s not going to make the decision any easier,” said Aliya Saperstein, a Stanford sociology professor who studies how people create and perceive categories such as race and gender.

Those who back the change say that a more accurate collection of race and ethnicity data across federal agencies — not just for the census — allows for better targeting of policies and funds for programs such as translating information for non-English speakers, tracking hate crimes and researching health outcomes.

The proposed change was announced in January and a final decision will be made in 2024. The U.S. Office of Management and Budget, which oversees the Office of the Chief Statistician, took feedback on the proposal until April 27. Among the more than 20,000 public comments, a number highlighted the unusual case of Jews.

As one public commenter put it, “It’s unclear which category European Jews who moved to Israel for a generation or two before coming to America would fall under. This may require additional guidance for individuals of Jewish ancestry.”

(Since 1997, people have been given the choice to select more than one race on forms and on the census. The categories “represent a sociopolitical construct” and are “not biologically or genetically based,” according to the government.)

Saperstein said the federal government had already done some testing of a non-white MENA category, but hadn’t specified Israeli.

“It’s not clear how people who identify as Israeli will respond to this,” she said.

Of course, there are plenty of Jews of color in the U.S., among them Asian Jews, Black Jews, Hispanic Jews and others who make up 8% of the American Jewish population, according to the 2021 Pew survey.

For Mizrachi Jews, whose culture is often overshadowed by the dominant Ashkenazi Jewish culture, a new category is a welcome change, said Sarah Levin, executive director of JIMENA, an organization that promotes awareness of Jews who are indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa.

“This is a long overdue, corrective intervention that can help strengthen social science research and social services for diverse MENA communities, including Jewish people,” she said.

Further complicating the issue, some Ashkenazi Jews resist the marker of “white,” arguing that they may pass as white but are subject to discrimination and antisemitism from white nationalists.

One public commenter on the proposed changes suggested replacing the word “Israeli” with “Jewish.”

The commenter described himself as an “Ashkenazi Jewish American whose ancestors never lived in the modern state of Israel, but who nevertheless does not feel comfortable identifying as ‘white’ (white supremacy being antisemitic necessarily precluding that identification from being meaningful in a data interpretation sense).”

And what about Americans with Sephardic heritage whose ancestors were expelled from Spain more than 500 years ago? While many fled to North Africa, a sizable number settled in the Netherlands. Generations later, the descendants of families from Amsterdam would need to pick “white,” while people whose families came from MENA countries would choose non-white.

Saperstein said that breaking everything down into national categories has an inherent weakness when it comes to people like Jews and others whose identity isn’t fixed to a definite location.

“If that’s the way you go with this kind of racialized notion of nationality, all transnational identities are going to be problematic in that framework,” she said. “The Roma, Jewish people, Kurdish people.”

There’s definitely an undercurrent of people rejecting the ‘white’ category.

“For Jews and all other peoples, how many years or generations does your family have to live in a place to become part of that place, i.e. not Italian-American but ‘American’?” asked Leora Lawton, executive director of the UC Berkeley Population Center. “Does that ever happen to Jews?”

One public commenter, Jordan Klein, a Ph.D. candidate in demography at Princeton, said the proposed language doesn’t work for “individuals who identify with groups that cross national borders and may not clearly fit into one of the new minimum racial and ethnic categories provided, the largest of which is Jewish Americans.”

The new language also could lead to overreporting of MENA heritage, Klein said, in which American Jews could choose to report as non-white MENA because they think that’s most appropriate. This might not make the changes as helpful in terms of policy as they’re intended to be.

“To address these concerns, I would propose listing ‘Ashkenazi/European Jewish’ as an example above the open-ended written response box under the White racial/ethnic category,” Klein said.

“There’s definitely an undercurrent of people rejecting the ‘white’ category, for sure,” Saperstein said. “But it’s not a wholesale movement.”

Lawton, who has a master’s degree in demography from Hebrew University, said that Middle Eastern as an ethnic category was never particularly useful to begin with.

“It’s not a very good category,” she said. “What are they trying to describe?”

She said that within the study of Middle Eastern demography, a complex mix of location, family connections and religion differentiated people more than anything.

“‘Middle Eastern’ as an ethnicity, which it’s not, would lump together all kinds of Israelis, Druze, Shia, Sunni and Alawite Muslims [and] various Christian denominations,” she said.

In the U.S., Middle Eastern immigrants can include both Arabs and many non-Arab peoples.

“No matter what is decided, I doubt any category will do a good job of representing reality,” Lawton said. “But some people will feel better.”

Middle Easterners have long been considered white in the U.S.

In 1915, a Syrian immigrant named George Dow was denied citizenship. He took the case to a federal appeals court, which examined whether the category of “free white” would apply to him.

The court decided in his favor, based on the grounds that white includes the “western Asiatics on this side of the Caspian Sea and the Ganges.” The judge specifically singled out “Syrians, Armenians, and Parsees” as fitting into 1915’s concept of white.

A few years earlier in Washington, D.C., lawyer Simon Wolf had lobbied for something similar for Jews as pogroms ravaged Europe.

A new preoccupation with sorting out the waves of immigrants to the U.S. had led to a desire for more data. Wolf, a leader in the progressive and assimilationist Reform Judaism movement of the time, pushed back on the categorization of Jewishness as anything but a religion, preferring to classify Jews (particularly immigrants) by nationality instead.

It was the countries oppressing the Jews in Europe who called them a race, “therefore the tabulating of the Jew as such … is strengthening the hands of the people who have oppressed him,” he said at a U.S. Senate hearing in 1909.

It wasn’t a slam-dunk position, because many American Jews at the time thought of themselves as not distinct by faith, but rather by custom, tradition and even genetics. That might now be considered ethnicity, but the term was not in use in Wolf’s day.

Yet this decision to view Jewish as a religious category set the basis for how Jews are seen now by government data collectors — as members of a religious group. Even today antisemitic hate crimes are classified under data collection as bias against religion, instead of bias against “race/ethnicity/ancestry.”

That doesn’t necessarily reflect how Jews see themselves, or how others see them. But there’s literally no way for Jewish people to identify themselves as ethnically Jewish in federal data because the category doesn’t exist.

“It’s relatively common for people who identify as Jewish to answer the race question and want to be recorded as Jewish, and so check ‘other’ and write in Jewish,” Saperstein said. “Of course, when they do that in the census, it gets treated as un-codable because it’s thought of as a religious response. It’s not among the things that they code.”

In the end, how important is the answer to this question on the census or other government forms? Data collection is only a best guess at most, and Jews are used to definingand redefining — their identities in every generation. But perhaps how the government sees Jews is important because it’s a reflection of how Jews see themselves and are seen by the public.

Jews are “another growing and important community in America that should have the opportunity to self-identify themselves also,” one public commenter said. “These are important parts of how we grow as a country, because we’re not just a White American population, we’re different … segments of the American story.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.