Palestinian American Community: In Numbers

Matthew Jaber Stiffler
March 5, 2024

The Palestinian American community is large and diverse. Palestinians have been immigrating to the United States (and other countries in North and South America) since the 1880s. There are large Palestinian communities, both Muslim and Christian, in many states including California, Illinois, Texas, Ohio, Florida, and Michigan.

Data on Palestinian immigration to the U.S. is very difficult to compile. Unfortunately, for much of the 20th Century, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and later the Department of Homeland Security did not consider Palestine as a standalone nation. Therefore, Palestinians entering the U.S. were folded into the numbers of whatever country they last resided in, such as Jordan or Lebanon, and sometimes were placed into the “unknown” category.

Even with this challenge, we can still find snippets of useful historical data on the Palestinian community. Although the U.S .government has a long history of erasure when it comes to Palestine, the federal government recognized that the Nakba created tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees. In response to the Nakba that followed the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, the U.S. Congress passed the Refugee Relief Act in 1953, allowing 2,000 Palestinian families to immigrate. Another 985 families were allowed to immigrate between 1958 and 1963.

Joseph Howar (Mohammad Issa Abu Al Hawa) immigrated from Palestine in 1904. He helped establish the first mosque in Washington D.C. in the 1950s. Arab American National Museum Collection 2014.02.11a.

And while we might not know the exact scale of Palestinian immigration to the U.S., we can learn a lot from individual and family stories, such as Joseph Howar, who was born in Palestine in 1885. In addition to humanitarian work in Palestine, he used his successful real estate career to help establish and build the first mosque in Washington D.C. in the 1950s. Like many, many other families who were forced from their homes after 1948, Judeh Hanna Judeh, a tailor, moved from Jaffa to Ramallah. When Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967, he moved to Chicago, eventually brining much of his family with him.


Palestinians in the U.S. Census

Beginning in 1980 the United States Census Bureau has tabulated responses from Palestinian Americans on the decennial census long form and then the American Community Survey (ACS). In 2020, for the first time, everyone had the opportunity to self-identify their ancestry on the decennial census. (Thanks to Rachel Marks, Branch Chief, Racial Statistics Branch, Population Division at the Census Bureau for her help).


According to the 2020 decennial Census, 174,887 people specified having Palestinian ancestry. The total number of Palestinians is much higher, as many might indicate they are more generally as Arab or Middle Eastern.


The Judeh family in a Chicago apartment, 1969. Arab American National Museum Collection 2004.79.11i. After the 1967 Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Judeh Hanna Judeh, already a refugee in 1948 when he lost his shop in Jaffa, started a new life in the United States in search of safety and stability for his family.


According to the 2019 American Community Survey (ACS) 5-yearcombined file, 109,699 people listed Palestinian as their primary ancestry. The total number of Palestinian Americans is likely much higher than indicated in the ACS data for a variety of reasons. One, there is a historic undercounting of Arab and MENA communities across the board. Two, this number is only inclusive of people who self-reported ancestry as Palestinian. Many Palestinians may have indicated that their ancestry is simply “Arab” or “Middle Eastern”. Finally, this particular ACS data table only lists people who indicated an Arab ancestry as their first reported ancestry. If someone said, for instance, that they were Italian and Palestinian, they would not be recorded here.

Combined with what we know from the 2020 decennial census, which enumerates 174,887 people with Palestinians ancestry in the US, we can safely assume that the actual number of Palestinian Americans is more than200,000.


Data Highlights from the American Community Survey

The graphs in this narrative and the data highlights below are based on the 109,699 people who self-identified with a primary ancestry of Palestinian on the 2019 ACS 5-year (weighted). This data was compiled by Dr. Jen'nan Read (Duke University) and Dr. Kristine Ajrouch (Eastern Michigan University/University of Michigan) for a 2023 report commissioned by ACCESS and CAN. 

The data is based on the Arab (including Chaldean) ancestry codes on the American Community Survey (ACS) and thus does not include the Iranian, Sudanese, or Somali community.

The white racial group is included in the tables to demonstrate why the Arab and Chaldean communities should have their own box separate from the white racial category. It is clear that Arab and Chaldean communities have distinctly different populations than the overall white racial category.


Age: The Palestinian community is younger than the average person that indicates an Arab ancestry, and much younger than the overall white racial category.

Education: As is the trend with Arab and MENA Americans in general, Palestinians are more likely to have a college degree than the average person in the white racial category.

Poverty: As is the trend with most Arab and MENA communities, due to a variety of factors including immigration status, Palestinians and Arab Americans are more likely to live below the poverty level than non-Arab white people.

Nativity: Palestinian Americans are more likely to be U.S. born and citizens than the average Arab or Chaldean individual, but still way more likely to be an immigrant than the average white person.

Language: Those who indicate “Palestinian” as their primary ancestry are more likely to speak Arabic at home at a higher rate than the average Arab American.

Household: Palestinian Americans tend to live in larger, multigenerational households.

Geography: As is the trend with most Arab and MENA communities overall, given the immense population of the state of California, more Palestinians live in California than any other state. But the highest concentration of Palestinians is in Illinois, specifically the Chicago metro area.

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