Most people believe that being Jewish is believing in Judaism: a religion. But this is not always the case. I am a Jew and I am non religious and there are many of us. So if I don´t believe in religion how can I be Jewish? I think the explanation lies unfortunately in that it is not only Jews who define Judaism, in my case, and in the case of many other Jews, Judaism was not only defined by sharing a common culture and history with other Jews but by the attacks of anti semites. In the case of Argentine Jews as myself there were three waves of attacks: the nazis, the Argentine military neo nazis and Hezbollah that greatly defined our identity.

I was born in Buenos Aires in 1960, only 15 years after the Holocaust claimed the lives of over a third of the Jews in the world. A large part of my Jewish identity is linked to this event, and the certainty that had the Nazis succeeded in conquering the world and hunting down all of the Jews, I would not be alive. I grew up listening to my grandparents telling me about the horrors of the holocaust and how they lived in fear in Argentina that the Nazis were going to win WWII. When I was sixteen and convinced that anti Semitism was history much to my surprise a group of neo nazis took over the government of Argentina (the Videla dictatorship) and started the called Dirty War against democratic intellectuals, socialists, communists and Jews murdering 30,000 people. One of them was my dear cousin David Horacio Varsavsky whose kidnapping forced my family to emigrate overnight in fear to the United States. David was only seventeen years old. His remains were never found. Today, in Madrid there is a sport’s facility dedicated to his memory that my foundation buit. This is a monument in the memory of David; a child who was a victim of the infamous “vuelos de la muerte” death flights in which passengers were flown into the ocean and thrown from high altitudes never to be found again. David was not an activist of any kind. He was a Jewish child. During the Dirty War not only Jews were killed of course but 9% of the victims of the massacres were Jewish in a country with a Jewish population of less than 1%. This war went on from 1976 to 1982. And again in the 90s, when Argentina´s democracy was well established and it seemed that random killings of Jewish people would never happened again, “nunca mas” (never again) as the famous book on the Dirty War was called… “nunca mas” proved to be wrong: and Argentina for unknown reasons was chosen as a primary target of Hezbollah war on Jews (Hezbollah confuses all Jews with citizens of Israel). The AMIA bombing resulted in 85 people dead and 300 wounded.

Having argued the case for antisemitism as a Jew I also know that the State of Israel has also evolved from defending itself in the 60s and 70s to being especially aggressive in the later decades adopting a self defence formula that in my view has greatly backfired and made Israel less safe. I have condemned the invasion of Lebanon of this summer as both a disproportionate response to the kidnappings of two Israeli soldiers and inneffective as strategy in the fight of Israel´s real enemy Hezbollah and its backers in Syria and Iran. Hezbollah is not Lebanon as a whole, nor was it supported by the majority of the Lebanese before the war. Now thanks to the excessive violence used by Israel, it is, and anti semitism as a global phenomenom is growng again. At my own modest level I did what I could to help the people of Lebanon and created Jews for Lebanon donating some of my own funds for the reconstruction of the beautiful and special country of Lebanon and asking fellow Jews who feel that indiscriminate attacks on civilian populations when fighting terrorism are wrong and counterproductive and who feel sorry about the Israeli invasion of this summer to do the same. I am Jewish but I am greatly opposed to the policies of the current Israeli government. Having said this I still believe that there is a significant difference between the violence of the State of Israel and the violence of Hezbollah. Hezbollah wants Jews dead, in Israel or in Buenos Aires. Hezbollah sees me as a target because I am Jewish. Israel however sees Hezbollah as a target because it is in a self declared war with Israel and Jews. Israel will seek a way to make peace with Hezbollah as it did in the past with many former enemies of Israel including Egypt and Jordan.

So can we be Jews without religion? Yes we can, partly because of a common cultural and historical bond to the other 13 million Jews on the planet but mostly because of anti semitism that is still alive among many groups and organizations who still want us dead wherever we are. And because we are only 13 million Jews all over the world the math of antisemitism is always against us because even if only 10% of the Muslims agree with Hezbollah´s call for the destruction of Israel and Jews or even if only 1% of the Christians are still neonazis a reasonable estimate that is still close to 200 million in the planet want us dead. It is for this reason that I believe that whether we like it or not as Jews antisemitism is one of the main forces that define us as a community regardless of our religious beliefs. Am I a Jew because many hate me? Unfortunately this is partly true as this hatred is only something that fellow Jews can truly feel.

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Killy-the-Frog on October 25, 2006  · 

I think it is sad that at the end Jewish people fell Jewish because some stupid people want to kill them.

Does the homosexual feel a group because many people hate them (the Nazi have also kill them, and in many countries they are still persecuted) ?
Or does they feel like a group because they have common interest and rights to fight for ?

I prefer being FOR somethings than AGAINST somethings.

But I am neither Jewish, neither homosexual…. So, I may misunderstand 😉

By the way, I also disagree and find counterproductive the violent reaction of Israel.

Peace & Love 😉

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Kevin Werbach on October 25, 2006  · 

Struggling with what Judaism means is an inherently Jewish activity. After all, “Israel” means “he who wrestles with God.” Contrast that with “Islam,” meaning “I submit”. (This isn’t meant to denigrate Islam; merely to point out the difference.)

There are many ways to interpret the religion. I am a religious Jew. My conception of Jewish belief incorporates Spinoza’s rationalistic idea of God as equivalent to nature, and updates it through the lens of complexity theory. But I completely agree that there is more to Judaism than religion.

Lately I’ve been reading Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of the Reconstructionist movement in American Judaism. Kaplan viewed Judaism as a “religious civilization”, in which shared historical experience and cultural reference points play as important a role as religion in defining what it means to be Jew. He talks about what “the Chosen People” means in the modern world, when we no longer imagine an anthropomorphic God who doles out favors and punishment to particular groups based on his whims. Shared reference points of antisemitism and its effects throughout history are part of that, as well as shared positive associations among Jews. Kaplan wrote most of his major works before the Holocaust and the founding of Israel, but I find them quite relevant today.

The other work that you might find interesting in this regard is Doug Rushkoff’s “Nothing Sacred.” I don’t agree with all of it, but it’s a fascinating attempt to link modern Judaism to the participatory ethos of the Internet and user-generated content.

Good luck in your effort to figure out what Judaism means to you, beyond the religion. It’s a question every Jew should ask.

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olive on October 26, 2006  · 

It is sad to see that the jewish identity has been been built for centuries by opposition.
Opposition to the antisemitism, pogroms, destruction…
The definition of judaism was made by the other. Because little you heart “pig of jew” or whatever other insults…
But now there is Israel, the country of the jews, and an existence less dangerous for a lot of us (jews!) in the world
For all of us who decide of not emmigrate to Israel, the danger is today less in antisemitism than in the lose of our jewish identity. We are not force to live in community We cannot anymore build our identity in opposition as we did it for centuries

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Martin Varsavsky on October 26, 2006  · 

Thanks Kevin for this great insight, I did not know the meaning of the term Israel but it does seem totally appropriate. In Catholic countries, like my native Argentina and now Spain I have had a hard time explaining to my friends that Jews, as opposed to Catholics barely agree on anything vis a vis religion. Even simple questions that all religions seem to have an answer for like what happens to people when they die have not been settled among religious Jews.

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Marcelo Levit on October 26, 2006  · 

I think that the meaning of being jew, changes through the centuries ….

I can not imagine a secular jew 1000 years ago…
In order to understand these subjects, one must understand the whole story of judaism, from the beginning.

I could feel jew even if nobody would hate me.

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Hernán L. Romay on October 26, 2006  · 

I humbly believe that all religions, or at least the 3 or 4 most popular (excluding buddhism), are the same thing as politics, but with a different disguise. They all seek to put people down by means of fear, guilt and self sacrifice. And all they provide in exchange is a promise, which you´re supposed to believe in order to have it make you happy…

I believe in mankind, eventhough I lose a lot and quite often.

I would remove the words jewish, catholic, muslim and protestant from all dictionaries. You could be religious, but don´t tell me anymore. Live your life, and let me live mine.

This goes with my utmost respect to all religious people.

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Faisal Al-Kadi on November 1, 2006  · 


I really praise your effort of supporting the Lebanese people, most of them who don’t have anything to do with the late war (among many wars!).

I don’t think anyone – including Ahmadinejad – doesn’t now sympethize with what happended to the Jews in Germany. Nevertheless, Israelis know are doing almost the same as the Hitlers. Lets just go back and see how the whole thing started. When did Israel was formed? How? And to what principles? It was built over an existing nation (that had native Arab Jews, Christians, and Muslims!). The original country/nation (Palestine) doesn’t now exist anymore, and no signals of having it again anytime soon. The Palestinians are kicked out as immigrants with no passports (most are still with this status) to almost every country in the world (does it remind us of anything?), the Great Wall is built to seperate them from the “civilized” (does this remind us of anything?), and huge imports of people from allover the world have been brought to balance the Jewish side of the country just because they say they are Jewish – from Russia, Europe, etc.

Now, can we not understand (not approve) the radicalization of Muslims allover the world? It is a racist discrimination of the “majority”!! Can we not understand (not approve) people who blow themselves, as they don’t any sign of hope. Do we think that they don’t have families, future to look up to, kids, etc.? Or are they just disperate!

Nevertheless, I am still optimistic, regardless of all this craziness around us. Muslims, Christians, and – above all – Jews lived in many times and under many rules in peace and respect for each other (Islamic Andalucia/Spain is a great late example). I think we aren’t that far from this. We say in Arabic (There is always a great hope after a great disaster). Well, it sounded wiser and better in Arabic 🙂

BTW, I love your class. Thank you for giving us an opportunity to learn from you.



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Martin Varsavsky on November 2, 2006  · 


While I agree with you that it is urgent that the two state solution of Palestine and Israel is implemented as soon as possible and that the Palestinians get their homeland somehow I am sadly convinced that most of the problems of the Muslim world have little to do with the Palestinians many of whom btw are not Muslim.

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jbs on November 15, 2006  · 

It’s strange reading a post on being jew and knowing that some of my ancestors were Jews – “new christians” was how the “converted” Jews were called during the inquisition years. Both branches of my family are from “new christians” areas, so I am, very likely, of Jew descent. But do I feel Jew? Not particularly. Neither I feel Christian, or Muslim, and there is also some probability of having Muslim ancestors. Do I feel Portuguese? Yes, I do. I feel I am the result of the environment I live in. And the environment I live in inherits some from all the cultures that got mixed here. And you know, I don’t think I’ll have a war inside my body with the “Jew” cells fighting the “Muslim” cells, and vice versa. Too bad that doesn’t happen also between Jews and Muslims.

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Faisal Al-Kadi on November 22, 2006  · 

I agree.
It never been this way – until recently. The rais of such tention is just disgusting! when you look at how different backgrounds/races/colors lived together previously. And we still pretend to live in the more developed and new world!
Prejudgments and generalization have never been more intense – in my opinion – and it is getting uglier.

Hope is always good though.


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richard-c-jr on January 9, 2008  · 

I think I am not Jewish at all, but I want to know if I can be like a nonreligous Jew. Can a nonreligous Jewish person eat pork and is Yiddish best connected and best represented as a language for a nonreligous Jewish person? Pork has so much more flavor compared to Kosher food. I like all meat to be well-done or well cooked so I can say that I agree and I accept about fifty percent of everything that is strict Jewish religous custom. By 50%, I mean not strong enough to be religious Jewish because it doesn’t go over that half way mark.

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