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Shalom, Javier

Israel’s leadership embraces Argentina’s Milei on tearful tour 

The philosemitic new president of Argentina declared Hamas ‘21st-century Nazis,’ crying on a visit to a Gaza border kibbutz – and while praying at the Kotel

Amos Ben-Gershom (GPO)

Argentinian President Javier Milei meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, February 7, 2024

From the moment he descended from a chartered El Al plane in Israel, wearing a “Bring Them Home Now” dog tag to advocate for hostages held by Hamas, Argentinian President Javier Milei was embraced by Israelis.

The South American country’s new leader has made an international name for himself with his colorful style, libertarian policies and slogan “¡Viva la libertad, carajo!” – “Long live liberty, damn it!” – with which Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz greeted him on the tarmac at Ben Gurion Airport.

But it’s not his eccentric style or economic policy that endeared him to Israelis – his great enthusiasm for Judaism makes him unique on the world stage, and his government has been called one of the most pro-Israel in Argentina’s history.

Milei was raised Catholic, but has long studied Torah “from the point of view of economic analysis” and is considering converting to Judaism, though he said that observing Shabbat while being president could pose a challenge. He often entered campaign events to the sound of a shofar blowing, and he spoke about the Maccabees during his inaugural speech, which took place on Hanukkah, with Israel’s then-Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and relatives of Israeli hostages kidnapped to Gaza present. He visited the Ohel in Queens, N.Y., where the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson is buried, a week after winning the election, and promised that his first presidential visit would be to Israel. 

And that wasn’t the only promise that Milei made – speaking on the tarmac at Ben Gurion Airport, the Argentinian president reiterated to Katz that he would move the Argentinian Embassy to Jerusalem. 

The expected ambassador is Milei’s rabbi, Axel Wahnish, head of the Moroccan Jewish community in Argentina, who lacks economic experience but is fluent in Hebrew and studied at Yeshivat Hanegev in Netivot, in Israel’s south. Wahnish accompanied Milei on his visit to Israel, during which the president made the unusual move of requesting a meeting with Israeli Chief Rabbis David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef. 

Milei also prayed with Wahnish at the Kotel, shedding tears. The meeting holds diplomatic significance, as many leaders are unwilling to visit the Western Wall because it falls in east Jerusalem, outside of Israel’s pre-1967 boundaries, or will take care to characterize it as a private visit to avoid making a political statement. 

Argentina’s President Javier Milei (R) cries with Rabbi Shimon Axel Wahnish during a visit to the Western Wall, the last remaining vestige of the Second Temple which is considered the holiest site where Jews can pray, in Jerusalem’s Old City on February 6, 2024.

A precise location for the Argentinian Embassy has yet to be determined, but, like the U.S. embassy, it will be in the less controversial parts of Jerusalem.  The city’s Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum offered Milei to help find a site when she met him this week. When it comes to moving the embassy, “there are practical issues to overcome that we will deal with to make sure it happens,” Milei said at an event organized by Fuente Latina, which works with Spanish-speaking media covering Israel. Other countries with embassies in Jerusalem are Guatemala, Kosovo, Honduras and Papua New Guinea. Several others have diplomatic offices.

Milei and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a one-on-one meeting followed by an expanded sit-down with Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi and others on the Israeli side, as well as Argentinian Foreign Minister Diana Mondino, Milei’s sister Karina, who functions as the country’s first lady and is Argentina’s general secretary of the presidency, a high-level adviser who is a member of the cabinet, and Wahnish.

Netanyahu and Milei bonded over championing free markets, the Prime Minister’s Office readout said. A source in Netanyahu’s office said that Milei expressed admiration for the economic reforms Netanyahu enacted in Israel as finance minister 20 years ago.

The Israeli prime minister also raised in his public remarks what has been a major point of contention between Jerusalem and left-wing governments in Buenos Aires: “The greatest challenge to peace in our area, but also in yours, is Iran. And we appreciate the cooperation with you in security and diplomacy.” 

Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Lebanese terrorist group, was behind the deadly bombings of the Israeli Embassy to Argentina in 1992 and the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1994, and some past Argentinian governments have helped to cover up Iran’s culpability. 

Within a month of Milei’s inauguration, Argentina arrested three suspects from Lebanon and Syria plotting to bomb the Pan-American Maccabi Games in Buenos Aires. 

Milei has announced that his government will declare Hamas – also backed by Iran – a proscribed terrorist group.

With some kibbutzim near the Gaza border having large Argentinian populations, going back decades to a wave of immigration to Israel in light of the military junta of the 1970s and economic crisis of the late 1990s, over 20 of the hostages Hamas took on Oct. 7 hold Argentinian passports. Eleven of them remain in Gaza, including, most famously, Shiri and Yarden Bibas and their redheaded sons Ariel, 4, and Kfir, 1.

Milei met with several groups of Argentinian citizens released from captivity and hostages’ relatives. The Argentinian president cried again during his visit on Thursday with President Isaac Herzog to Kibbutz Nir Oz, where one-quarter of the residents were either murdered or taken hostage by Hamas. Milei saw the Bibas home and heard released hostage Ofelia Roitman tell her story.

Photo by Maayan Toaf (GPO)

The visit “touched me deep in my soul,” Milei said and echoed remarks he made earlier in the trip when he visited Yad Vashem: “We see that it was the indifference of the free world that made the Nazi Holocaust possible…we see clear examples of terrorism and antisemitism and what I would describe as 21st-century Nazism. And when we hear about the methods that were used this time, it reminds us of the atrocities of the Holocaust.” 

“We again, strongly and unambiguously, condemn these abhorrent actions and reaffirm our solidarity and support for Israel, again for the legitimate right to self-defense,” he added.

Milei said he would work to bring about the release of all the hostages, regardless of nationality: “There are Argentine nationals among the hostages as well, but this is a crime against humanity, and this must be redressed.” 

Herzog, like other Israeli officials meeting with Milei, noted that the name “Javier” sounds similar to chaver, the Hebrew word for “friend,” and thanked his Argentine counterpart for his friendship.

“Your visit here today is a unique show of solidarity, of friendship, of a deep understanding of the feelings and the agony that Israel is going through, and also sharing with us the vision of hope,” Herzog said.

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