In Catholic Argentina, the incoming president has a rabbi — and likes talking about it

Shortly before taking office as president of Argentina on Sunday, Javier Milei decided to squeeze in what he called a spiritual journey, flying to New York City to visit the tomb of influential Hasidic Jewish leader Menachem Mendel Schneerson, known simply to his followers as the Rebbe.

Wearing a black kippa and trailed by journalists, Milei prayed last month at the cemetery in Queens to give thanks for his good fortune before returning to lead a country that faces a dizzying economic crisis.

The most surprising part of this story is that Milei is not Jewish. He was raised Catholic.

His forays into Judaism — a religion that does not seek out converts — add to the unconventional persona of the far-right libertarian economist and former television pundit who rocked Argentina’s political establishment by harnessing anger about rising poverty and inflation that currently runs over 140% a year.

A nonconformist who sports a moppy hairdo and speaks lovingly about his several cloned dogs, Milei, 53, pitched his campaign as a fight against the political elite, whom he dubbed “the caste,” and waved a chainsaw at rallies to symbolize his proposed budget cuts.

Argentina's President-elect, Javier Milei, center, prays next to Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis

Milei, center, prays next to Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis at the resting place of the Rebbe.

(Andres Kudacki / Associated Press)

Despite such extreme stances as promising to dollarize the economy, calling the Argentine Pope “deplorable” and suggesting that people be allowed to sell their bodily organs, Milei won 55% of the vote.

But perhaps the most unorthodox of his stances is his growing affinity for Orthodox Judaism in predominantly Catholic Argentina.

Catholics walk to attend a Mass of Reparation to Pope Francis in response to criticism of the pontiff

Catholics walk to attend a Mass of Reparation to Pope Francis in response to Milei’s criticism of the pontiff in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in September.

(Rodrigo Abd / Associated Press)

In 2021, as Milei was launching his campaign for Congress, he was getting “stigmatized as a Nazi,” according to Julio Goldestein, a Jewish member of Milei’s campaign. The comparisons followed Milei saying in an interview about his opponents: “We don’t only beat them in productivity, we are morally superior, we are aesthetically superior, we are the best in everything, and that hurts them.”

Goldestein called Tommy Pener, director of Betar, a Jewish youth group in Argentina, to dispel such insinuations.

“Javier Milei is not an antisemite, not only that, he’s a good friend of the Jews,” Pener said Goldestein told him.

They organized a meeting at Acilba, a Moroccan Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, with about 100 youths “to show that what was being said was false,” Pener said. Milei and Waldo Wolff, a local Jewish congressman, led a talk about antisemitism and “the fight against totalitarianism.”

Milei also developed a relationship with Acilba Rabbi Shimon Axel Wahnish and began meeting frequently with him to study Judaism. Milei told Radio Jai that the rabbi “gives me a lot of spiritual tranquility in a moment when I’m constantly getting attacked by the ‘political caste.’” (Wahnish declined to be interviewed for this story and Milei’s team said Milei wasn’t available.)

Since then, Milei has shown an increasingly public interest in Judaism and has even expressed intentions to convert. He says that he has a rabbi, not a priest, speaks admiringly about Moses during interviews, and has blasted the sounds of the shofar, the ram’s horn blown on Jewish High Holidays, before thousands at campaign rallies.

He has also pledged that Argentina, which has the sixth-largest Jewish community in the world and the largest in Latin America, would move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem because Jerusalem “was the capital chosen by King David.” (Donald Trump, to whom Milei has welcomed comparisons, moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem during his own presidency.)

As Argentine media eagerly cover Milei’s outings to Jewish events, including a recent Havdalah ceremony in Buenos Aires where a rabbi gave him his blessing, people close to Milei say that his interest in Judaism is genuine and not political in nature. Argentina’s estimated 175,000 Jews, most living in Buenos Aires, are politically diverse, and while Jewish politicians have held high-ranking positions, the Jewish vote carries minimal weight on a national level.

“Of course we’re happy that we have a future president who has deep faith in God, is sincere, spiritual,” said Rabbi Tzvi Grunblatt, the head of the Argentine branch of Chabad-Lubavitch, the traditionalist movement long led by Rabbi Schneerson that favors a mystical approach, emphasizing prayer and joyfully following the Torah and adhering to strict rules on modesty, gender segregation during synagogue services and dietary restrictions.

Argentine presidential candidate Javier Milei for La Libertad Avanza party holds a flag of Israel during a campaign rally

Milei, from La Libertad Avanza party, holds a flag of Israel during a campaign rally in Buenos Aires in October.

(Matias Baglietto / Associated Press)

The vibrant Jewish community in Argentina dates back to those fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe in the late 19th century. Some formed agricultural communities, including one called Moisés Ville, and others settled in urban areas.

The country also, however, became a haven for Nazis in hiding after World War II, including Adolf Eichmann, who was captured in a Buenos Aires suburb in 1960 by Mossad agents and brought to Israel for trial before being executed in 1962. Auschwitz death camp doctor Josef Mengele also hid in Argentina.

In the early 1990s, two terrorist attacks in Buenos Aires shook the Jewish community — with a total of 114 people killed in bombings of the Israeli embassy and the AMIA Jewish community center. Both crimes remain unsolved. In 2015, the lead prosecutor in the AMIA investigation was found dead with a gunshot wound to the head hours before he was scheduled to testify that he believed then-President Cristina Kirchner conspired with Iran to cover up its alleged role in the bombing.

Relatives of victims of a bomb attack to the Jewish community centre of the Mutual Israelite Association of Argentina

Relatives of victims of the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, which killed 85 people, hold photos during its 28th anniversary in 2022.

(Luis Robayo / AFP via Getty Images)

Some remain wary about Milei’s public displays.

“If things go badly [for Milei] there are sectors that are antisemitic and the first thing they will do is say this is the fault of Milei’s relationship with the Jews,” said Pablo Gorodneff, the secretary general of Llamamiento Argentino Judio, a progressive Jewish group in Buenos Aires.

Also, certain of his religious analogies haven’t gone over well. Jewish institutions largely remained publicly apolitical around the election, but the country’s leading Jewish association, known as the DAIA, accused Milei of trivializing the Holocaust after he compared Argentina’s COVID-19 health pass, which let people go to certain events, to the Star of David that Jews were forced to wear in Nazi Germany.

In September, several thousand Jews signed a letter saying that Milei “doesn’t represent us,” voicing their concern with his “expressions of hate” and his “political use of Judaism, its texts and its symbols.” They have also accused his vice president, Victoria Villarruel, of downplaying the crimes of the nation’s military dictatorship of the mid-1970s through early 1980s, during which time tens of thousands of people disappeared, according to human rights groups. Experts say that Jews, many of them prominent among targeted leftist students, were overrepresented in the ranks of the disappeared.

And in December, Milei faced backlash from the Argentine Forum Against Antisemitism, a recently formed civil society group, in response to his designation of Rodolfo Barra as his government’s chief legal officer. Barra had resigned as minister of justice in the 1990s after revelations surfaced that he had belonged to a neo-Nazi group as a teenager. (He has since apologized.)

Nonetheless, as Milei campaigned for the presidency, Judaism began appearing more and more in his statements. Last spring, he told the newspaper La Nación, “My main reference, to whom I refer continually, is Moses.”

Milei has made at least three trips since July to visit the grave of the Rebbe, who transformed the Chabad Lubavitch Hasidic movement into a major force in Jewish life by dispatching representatives across the world to bring Jews closer to their faith.

Argentina's President-elect, Javier Milei, center, hugs Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis

Milei, center, hugs a rabbi at the Montefiore cemetery during his November trip to visit the Rebbe’s resting place.

(Andres Kudacki / Associated Press)

On Milei’s most recent pilgrimage, he met Rabbi Simon Jacobson, the head of a New York spiritual center who told Milei about having been an oral scribe for the Rebbe — a job that entailed memorizing hours of his speeches on the Sabbath and holidays when recordings and notes are forbidden. Milei was so fascinated that he spoke about the encounter back home in Argentina.

“He’s declared himself an open lover of Israel and Judaism,” said Alejandro Avruj, rabbi of Amijai, a conservative synagogue. “I expect that the government’s closeness…. not only to Israel but the western world will be more than positive.”

According to campaign member Goldestein, Milei uses the ram’s horn as a stirring symbol to show “the feeling of liberty that can be woken inside every person.”

At a campaign rally in October, a huge screen with the image of a man wearing a Jewish prayer shawl and blowing a shofar suddenly illuminated the stadium. The sound of the instrument played before a video showing buildings crashing down and bombs exploding.

Moments later, Milei walked onstage to the sound of blaring rock music.

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