NEW YORK – When Oren Heiman was asked to participate in a national meeting convened by the United States Census Bureau to discuss a new category on the next census, he was surprised. But as a representative of the New York-area Israeli-American community, he knew it was an important opportunity.
The Census Bureau is testing a new race and ethnicity designation called Middle East-North Africa, which would be added to the current choices of white, black, Asian and Hispanic/Latino. In testing slated to begin September in preparation for the 2020 national headcount, the category will include 19 alternatives from which census takers may choose, like Egyptian, Syrian, Lebanese, Iranian, Moroccan, Israeli and Palestinian.
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Heiman, along with 29 sociologists and leaders of other organizations representing communities included in the Middle East-North Africa category, was hosted in Washington on May 29 at a Census Bureau meeting to discuss the new designation. Heiman is chairperson of Moatza Mekomit, an umbrella organization of groups that serve Israeli-Americans in the greater New York area. Others at the Washington meeting included leaders of the Arab American Institute, Arab American Association of New York, Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services, and the Kurdish American Society.
Heiman says that at the meeting, he felt like the odd man out. “The elephant in the room was the Israeli topic. Everyone in the room did not want Israel to be there.”
Asked how he knew, Heiman said, “You felt this.”
“A lot of people said ‘Israel does not belong in this category. Israelis are like a different island, not part of the Middle East,’” Heiman said.
Oren Heiman: “The elephant in the room was the Israeli topic." (Credit: Ilanit Habot)
It was, he said, an odd – but not unfamiliar – experience.
After all, “Israel doesn’t play soccer in the Middle Eastern league, but in the European league. Israel sings in Eurovision – the only Middle Eastern country that participates. We’re a little weird. We’re not part of the Arab League, not part of the Middle East oil organization, though we have gas and oil.”
“Whenever there was an exclusive comment, like ‘We in the Middle East are Muslim and feel A and B,’ I said ‘there are different peoples with different needs.’ I felt like the outlier in the room,” Heiman said.
But when asked about anti-Israel comments, several other people present, including the lead Census Bureau official and other Jews, said that they didn’t detect anything.
Roberto Ramirez is assistant division chief of special population statistics at the U.S. Census Bureau. “If that was Oren’s impression, that’s fine. From the feedback forms we received, the majority favor including Israel in the classification,” he told Haaretz.
“Organizers of the meeting emphasized that this is not political, and it’s not about the conflict in the Middle East, it’s just to create these census categories of people in the US. They gave warnings not to be political or volatile,” said Steven Gold, a professor of sociology at Michigan State University, who has for years studied Israelis and Arabs in the U.S.
“People were friendly. But I’m not Israeli,” Gold said, so may have been less sensitive to tone than Heiman, he acknowledged. “People seemed perfectly forthcoming. Social science settings are often fraught with ideology and conflict. They can be pretty prickly over pretty small issues. I didn’t think it was any more tense [at the census meeting] than at other settings.”
“To me it’s a red herring [to say that Arab-American groups oppose Israel’s inclusion],” said Samer Khalaf, national president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. “My position is, I want the category. End of story. I’m not going to get into a debate over whether a specific country should be in or out. I want the category and I want it as expansive as possible. It should be the 22 Arab League nations plus Turkey, Iran and Israel.”
“The discussion was more centered around the Arab community, but nobody ever came out and said ‘we don’t want the Israeli designation’ or anything like that. I didn’t sense it. But I’m not coming from the Israeli perspective. When we submitted our statement to the Census Bureau, we said that they would be included,” Khalaf said.
“I’m trying to identify who my community is. If the census bureau says we’ll give you the MENA category but Israel’s in, we’re going to take it. Right now the bigger debate than Israel is over Turkey and some of the African countries like Sudan and Mauritania. There’s a bigger debate over those than over Israel.”
Linda Sarsour didn’t pick up anything anti-Israel either. Sarsour, whose parents are from the West Bank, is executive director of the Arab-American Association of New York, a social services and advocacy organization. “I don’t think people raised objections to Israel being included at the meeting,” she told Haaretz. “People were trying to not make it a political thing. It’s about numbers. I didn’t see any contentious conversation about that.”
In fact, she said, it was Oren who posed questions about Israel’s inclusion.
“It was the first time Oren had heard of MENA. He was asking a lot of questions, and when someone asked if it even made sense for Israeli Americans to be part of it, it was him asking,” Sarsour said. “It was the Israeli guy asking those questions – he was asking ‘do we as Israeli Americans benefit of being part of the MENA box?’ I didn’t hear anybody else in the room bring up whether or not Israelis should be part of it.”
Heiman also took issue with the fact that Palestinian is one of the specific choices under the MENA heading. “Is Palestine a country for all intents and purposes?” he said to Haaretz.
Israel was not the only included label questioned, he said. Bedouin may also be listed as an option. “Someone from Saudi Arabia said ‘it’s not an ethnicity, it’s people who choose that lifestyle.’”
If, as he experienced it, the MENA party is one where other guests don’t want to talk with Israelis, why insist on staying?
Representatives of Arab American groups said that they are eager to have their community recognized as a minority primarily for the potential in terms of funding social services. For Heiman, Israelis being as a defined as a minority would be a boon to research studies. And it would confer a benefit when Israeli-owned companies bid for state and local contracts that give preference to minority-owned businesses, he said.
But being part of the MENA category would also have more a symbolic value.
“It is another way for us to see ourselves as part of the neighborhood, which has a political connotation,” Heiman told Haaretz. “Most Israelis would say ‘we are not Middle Eastern, we are not part of that world.’ This increases our openness to cooperate with our neighbors.
“It creates an identity bridge. If 40 years from now I say I’m MENA-ish, and my friend from Lebanon says the same thing, it gives us some sort of common denominator, some sort of connection between identities. Israelis and Syrians can’t meet in Israel. We can only do it this way.”