MENA box

Biden admin considering new Middle Eastern census category that would include Israelis

If adopted, the proposed changes to the race and ethnicity question would go into effect for the 2030 census

John Roark/The Idaho Post-Register via AP, File

FILE - This March 18, 2020 file photo taken in Idaho shows a form for the U.S. Census 2020.

The Biden administration has proposed a major policy change in the way people living in America define their racial or ethnic background on federal forms and the 2030 census. The proposed language would for the first time add a Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) category to a question about respondents’ race or ethnicity. The MENA category, which has been heavily supported by Arab American advocacy groups, would also include Israelis. 

Until now, people from countries as varied as Jordan, Israel, Morocco and Iran were placed under the “white” category on the census. If implemented, the policy shift would mark the first major change to the federal census’ race and ethnicity guidelines since 1997. 

The race categories on the 2020 census and in other federal forms are African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian or Pacific Islander or Other. 

The changes would also merge the census’ two race and ethnicity questions — currently, respondents are asked about their race and their ethnicity in separate questions — into one, using the language, “What is your race or ethnicity?” It would also for the first time include Hispanic or Latino as a standalone option under the race category, rather than as a subset of “white.” 

“The purpose of the census is for obviously congressional reapportionment, but also where services from the federal government should be delivered,” said Dillon Hosier, CEO of the Israeli-American Civic Action Network, a Los Angeles-based advocacy organization. “We see this as a massive corrective action to ensure that this community isn’t invisible as it relates to the census and other issues that are connected to it.”

After checking the MENA box, census respondents would have the option to write in a more detailed marker of their identity, including Israeli. “Examples include, but are not limited to, Lebanese, Iranian, Egyptian, Syrian, Moroccan and Israeli,” the proposed census language says. 

Studies from the U.S. Census Bureau have shown that people from the Middle East and North Africa do not identify with any of the currently listed racial categories. A 2021 Pew study found that half of Americans thought the 2020 census did not reflect their identity very well. The Census Bureau asks about the question because information about race “is critical in making policy decisions, particularly for civil rights,” its website says.  

The proposed federal rules change was announced in late January. The public can submit comments on the proposal, which is published in the Federal Register, until April 12. As of March 27, more than 8,800 comments have been posted. On average, roughly 100 new comments were posted a day, most of them supportive of the new MENA category. 

Supporters gave a wide range of reasons for backing the new language. Some said that having accurate data about the number of people of Middle Eastern and North African descent would help eliminate health disparities. Others said that inaccurate data might mask discrimination in hiring and education faced by people from the region. 

The proposed census changes have been supported by some civil rights groups, such as the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and a wide swath of Arab-American civic organizations. U.S. Jewish organizations — including the Israeli-American Council, which represents the Israeli Jewish community — have largely stayed away from the issue. William Daroff, CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told Jewish Insider his organization does not have a position on it. 

“I just think that we do need a better appreciation of the unique experiences of these communities and to kind of adjust our engagement accordingly,” said Hosier, who noted that only incomplete data exists regarding how many Israelis, and children of Israelis, live in the U.S. Estimates range from 200,000 to a million. 

The White House Office of Management and Budget, which oversees the working group that is studying the issue, says the final revisions to the 2030 census should be complete by summer 2024. 

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