Mizrahi Is the New Black for American Jews

The U.S. government is considering adding ‘Middle Eastern’ to racial categories in documents, but Jews from there are hesitant to be identified as ‘non-white.’

Asaf Kowalski

NEW YORK – The racial issue in the United States has become more loaded than ever in recent years. Despite most American Jews preferring to avoid racial controversies, many will likely be forced to reevaluate their ethnic identity soon.

Following a fight by Arab-American organizations, which opposed a proposal to identify them as “white” in official documents, the U.S. government is weighing adding a “Middle East or North Africa” category to its 2020 census. The decision is likely to sharpen the identity crisis of Mizrahi Jews in the United States.

The racial debate among American Jews is nothing new, but it has resurfaced recently in the wake of the ongoing controversy over police violence against blacks in the U.S.

“In a flawed and racist society, we Jewish Americans are prospering, reaching the top echelons of privilege and power,” wrote Gil Steinlauf, the senior rabbi at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C., in the Washington Post. "With racism and injustice entrenched year after year, generation after generation, we must now ask ourselves: What role do we play in that injustice now that most of us live as white people in America?”

The rabbi’s argument is most relevant when it comes to American Jews of Mizrahi extraction. In August, the U.S. Census Bureau announced a pilot program to adopt “Middle East-North Africa” category as an additional racial category, alongside “White,” “Black or African American,” “American Indian or Alaska Native,” “Asian,” and “Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander.”

This announcement was the result of a lobbying campaign by Arab-American organizations against being identified as white on official forms. Begun in 2010, the campaign adopted a slogan, “Check it right, you ain’t white!” If the pilot succeeds, the new category will be added to the 2020 census.

Young American Mizrahi Jews are unsure of what the new category will mean for them.

“I have always been identified as Caucasian,” San Francisco student Shira Yomtoubian told Haaretz. “I remember once I thought about writing Middle Eastern in ‘other,’ but I thought they would still consider it Caucasian.”

“I think it’s a great cause, that we would have representation, but on the other hand it could be used to tag Middle Eastern people,” Yomtoubian added. “And I don’t know if I want that. For example, when I go to the airport in the United States, I can’t tell you, every time I’m stopped. I think if you have any kind of features, I’m not upset about it, unless I’m in a hurry, but there is like this target. I’m wondering how they would use this information.”

Her fears are not baseless. After the September 11 attacks, the U.S. Census Bureau handed over databases with addresses of Americans of Arab extraction to security organizations.

“But I would check it,” added Yomtoubian. “I wouldn’t lie.”

Other Jews believe that the discrimination experienced by Americans of Middle Eastern origin is not serious enough to identify them as people of color, and that this definition is reserved mainly for Americans of African or Asian origin.

“Because I work as an activist, this question comes out a lot,” says Shaily Hakimian, a Jew of Moroccan parentage who works for an LGBT group. “Like, for example, we have a POC [person of color] hospitality suite where people can go and speak to other people. And because I haven’t been disenfranchised in the same way as a black person has, I don’t feel that is my space. I also don’t want to take any space that wasn’t meant for me.”

Hakimian adds that despite not looking white, she does not feel that people attach to her stereotypes they have of Middle Eastern or African people.

“The worst thing I remember was one time when I was ordering a burrito in college, and when I had to choose ingredients, the guy said, ‘You look like someone who likes olives,’” she recalls. “But I have benefitted from looking whiter. If there was a form I would check Middle Eastern, or else ‘other.’”

Questions about the privileges of American Jews also come up in a talk with Galeet Dardashti, a musician and anthropologist whose father moved to the U.S. from Iran.

“I myself do not identify as a ‘Person of Color,’” she says. “I see the POC label as very specific, referring less to the color of one’s skin and more to an experience of societal marginalization. I am notably darker than most Ashkenazim and I routinely get ‘randomly’ checked at the airport,” She notes that she recently received a full-body pat down in a private room.

“In general, however, I have experienced almost no discrimination in the U.S.,” she says. “While I certainly do not discount the experiences of other American Jews of Middle Eastern and North African background who have felt discrimination, this was not my experience. The worst thing I can remember was a high school classmate giving me a dirty look and asking if my family was Iraqi (conflating Iran with Iraq) during the First Gulf War. So, I personally don’t feel comfortable self-identifying as a ‘Person of Color’ from such a privileged vantage point.”

Diane Tobin, founder of the American organization Be’chol Lashon, which strives to transcend differences in geography, ethnicity, class, race, ritual practice and beliefs in Judaism, welcomes the new category.

“Jews from the Middle East and North Africa should be able to claim and be proud of all the identities of which they are a part,” she says. “The demographics of America are changing. Americans are becoming increasingly diverse, with whites now accounting for under half of the births in the U.S.”

According to Tobin, data from the Pew Research Center indicates that millennials and members of Generation Z are more ethnically and racially diverse than previous generations.

“Jews are part of American life and are affected by social trends,” she explains. “Even though historically the ability to integrate and pass as white in America was key to the success of Jewish immigrants, today there is a need for a new paradigm.”

Rabbi Sion Setton of the Congregation Magen David of Manhattan also believes this new step is significant.

“My parents were born in Egypt – my father of Aleppan descent and my mother of Iraqi,” he says. “I grew up in the Brooklyn Syrian community and very much identify with Middle Eastern Jewish culture. I do not think of myself as white. I think it’s an important addition that will bring up the multiplicity of identities in today’s society.”

Still, issues like Judaism and Israel, are more burning for American Jews. Joe Hakimian, a diamond dealer from Chicago, says that discrimination against non-Ashkenazi Jews is insignificant for him and his friends. He says the anti-Semitism that he experienced in school, and continues to experience at work dwarfs the form issue.

“I don’t think it’s necessary. I would mark ‘White,’ and most people of the younger generations would mark ‘White,’” he says. “Maybe the older generation would mark ‘Middle Eastern,’ but even they, I don’t think they would say it’s important to add ‘Middle Eastern’ to the forms.”

Hakimian says the he considers himself white in the United States, but that he feels that it is his Jewishness that defines him, even though his Mizrahi identity is very important to him.

“Rarely, if ever, have I felt prejudiced against as a Persian, and my friends who have darker skin also don’t get any discrimination as Persians, but we face a lot of discrimination as Jews,” he says.

“I went to public high school in Northbrook, Illinois, where half of us were Jewish, but even there I was called ‘kike,’” he recalls. “During a football game, someone from a different school tried to punch me in the stomach and said something about ‘you Jews, your Jewish high school.’ Another time, when I was playing baseball, someone came up to me later and said, ‘You kike, go back to the ovens.’ Even now, even in my business, people say things like, ‘Jews only care about money. A calculator is a Jewish typewriter.’”

Despite American Jews not being interested in fighting for bureaucratic change, whether it’s because they perceive anti-Semitism as a more burning issue or possibly because of the lack of desire to be pulled into the debates about race and white privileges in the country, it seems that many will agree to choose the new option, should it be adopted.

“I would absolutely choose the ‘Middle East or North Africa’ designation if it appeared on the Census Bureau,” says Galeet Dardashti. “I generally choose ‘Other’ whenever I have the option of choosing something other than ‘White.’”