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President Milei’s surprising dedication to Judaism and Israel sparks tensions in Argentina and beyond

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — At the foot of the sacred Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, President Javier Milei from Argentina seemed to be in a spiritual trance.

With his head and hands resting against the ancient stone, he prayed with the Orthodox rabbi who introduced him to Judaism three years ago. Although born and raised Catholic, Milei has shown increasing public interest in Judaism and has even expressed intentions to convert.

Stepping away from the wall, Milei collapsed. He hugged Rabbi Shimon Axel Wahnish, sobbing on his shoulder.

“At that moment, I felt proud that we had such a determined leader, with such deep spiritual values,” Wahnish told The Associated Press in a recent interview, recalling their state trip to Israel in FEBRUARY.

For many Argentines, this pride was fraught with difficulties.

Breaking decades of political precedent, Milei has gone further in his support for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government than perhaps any other world leader, as Israel faces increasing isolation following its bombings and his invasion of Gaza which killed more than 36,000 Palestinians and pushed the enclave to the brink of famine.

Its position contrasts no more sharply with that of most Latin American countries – where Bolivia and Colombia have severed ties with Israel and at least five countries in the region, most recently Brazil, have withdrawn their ambassadors from Tel Aviv.

“Among the great nations that should be the pillars of the free world, I see indifference among some and fear among others to side with the truth,” Milei told Jewish community leaders at an event last month commemorating the 81st anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. . It was a veiled jab at Western powers – including the United States – for criticizing Israeli military conduct.

The crowd jumped to their feet and applauded.

The president’s supporters insist his new Jewish fervor has no bearing on his foreign policy. But Milei’s enthusiasm for Judaism and her outspoken support for Israel have generated fears and exposed fissures within Argentina’s Jewish community, one of the largest in the world, and disrupted relations with its neighbors.

Argentine Jews remain deeply scarred by two deadly bombings targeting the Israeli embassy in 1992 and the Argentine Jewish Mutual Association, a community center known by its Spanish acronym AMIA, in 1994. Authorities say Iran planned these attacks and that the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah carried them out. . No one was held responsible. The Argentine investigation is mired in controversy.

“Milei has a messianic spirit, and that’s quite dangerous,” said Diana Malamud, whose husband was among the 85 people killed in the AMIA attack. “His policies can not only fuel conflicts at the international level (…) but also generate anti-Semitism within our country.”

Milei’s curiosity about Judaism began as a sort of penance in 2021, when he was accused of pro-Nazi sympathies and wanted to prove through his speech that he had no animosity towards Jews. He contacted Sephardic leader Rabbi Wahnish to have “a conversation that was supposed to last 10 minutes and ended two hours later,” Wahnish said.

As Milei evolved from television pundit to “anarcho-capitalist” president, Wahnish guided him in Torah study. Seeking common ground between his vision of radical libertarianism and Old Testament prophecy, Milei’s casual interest blossomed into a regular religious practice.

Wahnish, recently appointed Argentina’s ambassador to Israel, declined to comment on Milei’s conversion.

“In Judaism and Moses, Milei sees a cultural and spiritual revolution toward freedom,” Wahnish said. Since childhood, he added, Milei “felt that Moses was his idol, his hero.”

Milei, who has four clones of his dead dog Conan, has never been the most conventional occupant of Argentina’s highest office. Yet his foray into Judaism was a particular surprise.

During the election campaign, Milei cited the Torah, made numerous pilgrimages to Brooklyn to the tomb of influential Hasidic leader Menachem Mendel Schneerson, and blew the shofar, the ram’s horn trumpet sounded during the major Jewish holidays, to close his electoral campaign.

Before Milei’s victory, nearly 4,000 Argentine Jewish intellectuals signed a petition expressing concern about Milei’s “political use of Judaism.”

“It is perverse … to use the shofar, which is played during religious ceremonies, to announce oneself,” said Pablo Gorodneff, secretary general of the progressive group Argentine Jewish Appeal. “It makes me very frustrated, very sad.”

As fighting raged in Gaza, Milei flew to Israel for his first foreign visit and praised Netanyahu wholeheartedly. Following in the footsteps of former US President Donald Trump, he has pledged to move Argentina’s embassy from a seaside stronghold near Tel Aviv to the contested capital of Jerusalem – escalating an emotional issue in heart of the conflict. Netanyahu called Milei a “great friend.” Hamas called him a “partner of the Zionist occupier.”

Last month, Milei’s government upended Argentina’s traditional recognition of Palestinian statehood, joining the United States and Israel in voting against Palestinian membership in the UN.

His change in foreign policy excited Jewish community leaders, but also left them nervous.

“If Milei’s so-called defense of Israel is an attack on Palestinian rights, it endangers Argentina’s Jewish community,” said Héctor Shalom, director of the Anne Frank Center of Argentina. “Decades of impunity for past attacks show our vulnerability. »

The 1994 bombing, Argentina’s most notorious unsolved case, still sows unease. After the Hamas attack on October 7, the Jewish community’s mood shifted from worry to alarm.

Jewish high schools asked students to stop wearing their uniforms, so as not to identify as Jewish. The authorities have increased security in synagogues. Two bomb threats emptied the AMIA building.

“Security levels have always been high, but the sensitivity is now much greater,” said Amos Linetzky, director of AMIA.

Government officials have also become concerned, lashing out at Iran and warning that the war between Israel and Hamas has fanned the embers of Islamic militancy and carried them as far as Latin America.

When the first Iranian attack on Israeli territory was announced on April 14, local media reported that Milei’s pro-Israeli stance had made him a target. He cut short his state visit to Denmark and returned home to convene a crisis committee alongside the Israeli ambassador.

Milei’s hardline Security Minister Patricia Bullrich has singled out leftist neighbors Bolivia and Chile as Islamist hotbeds, ordering reinforcements to Argentina’s northern border.

“We are on alert,” Bullrich said, asserting that Bolivia – which struck a defense deal with Iran last year – is teeming with members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. “Politically correct messages like the call for peace do not correspond to Argentina’s position.”

Without providing evidence, Bullrich also claimed that Chile – home to the largest Palestinian population outside the Arab world – is home to Hezbollah.

These accusations, considered unfounded by Bolivia and Chile, prompted the two governments to withdraw their ambassadors from Buenos Aires.

On Saturday, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, a 57-member group describing itself as “the collective voice of the Muslim world,” issued a furious denunciation of what it described as Milei’s anti-Islamic rhetoric.

For years, U.S. and Argentine intelligence services have subjected the triple border, where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet, to intense surveillance, scouring the large population of Lebanese and Syrian immigrants in search of Islamist sympathies.

“One of the things that I think doesn’t get enough attention is how long Hezbollah has been in our hemisphere,” Sen. Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week. spring.

Washington claims that Hezbollah finances its activities thanks to drug traffickers in the region. The U.S. Treasury has sanctioned dozens of people in South America for their alleged ties to Hezbollah, most recently last fall. Authorities said they foiled the attacks, with Israel’s Mossad spy agency helping Brazil arrest suspected Hezbollah recruits last November.

Hezbollah denies carrying out operations in the region.

“What would Hezbollah want with Latin America? group spokeswoman Rana Sahili asked the AP. She accused Milei of playing with facts to score points in a “political game.”

Experts believe the real threat lies somewhere in between.

“Some say Hezbollah’s presence in Latin America is a pure invention, while others say the group is using the region as a base and we are doomed,” said Fernando Brancoli of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.

“Neither is correct.”


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