Middle East Eye / August 18, 2023
Presidential hopeful wants to move country’s embassy to Jerusalem and wants to live his life by Jewish religious law.
Argentina is facing a watershed moment after the far-right economist Javier Milei won the largest share of votes in the presidential primary elections last weekend.
Milei, a self-described “anarcho-capitalist”, stands as the front-runner ahead of a first-round presidential vote in October.
Compared widely to former US President Donald Trump, Milei’s known for his criticism of the country’s political elite.
Some of his supporters wear “Make Argentina Great Again” hats while others fly the yellow Gadsden flag – a flag which features a rattlesnake with the slogan, “Don’t tread on me”, which was made popular among the far-right in the United States.
Milei is himself an admirer of Trump, and his radical agenda for the country includes abolishing the central bank, characterizing climate change as a lie, warning that the left wants to destroy the family as well as looking to liberalize gun ownership in the country.
And just like Trump, Milei has also spoken of his special fondness for a country in the Middle East: Israel.
The 52-year-old has made it clear for months that one of his first moves as president would be to reverse the decades of balanced Argentinian foreign policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
His first measure in terms of international politics would be to move the Argentine embassy in Israel from the city of Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a move that only four countries have so far made.
Milei has justified his decision with an unusual biblical quote: “When the one ordered Moses to break the first tables of the law, the first word he uttered was Jerusalem, and that was where King David established the capital, therefore we must take the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.”
Should he win, he would follow in the footsteps of another Latin American country. Earlier this week, Israel’s foreign minister, Eli Cohen, announced that Paraguay would move its embassy to Jerusalem by the end of the year.
The Latin American state would become the fifth country to relocate from Tel Aviv in the past five years, following Kosovo, Honduras, Guatemala, and the US.
If Milei follows through, the measure would be a provocative step towards the Palestinians and could jeopardize the country’s relationship with the rest of the Arab and Muslim world.
East Jerusalem is claimed by the Palestinians as the capital of their future state and was occupied by Israel following the 1967 June War.
In 1980, Israel annexed East Jerusalem, a move that has not been recognized by the United Nations, declaring it occupied territory.
In addition to moving the country’s embassy to Israel, Milei announced during the campaign that his first trip as president would be to Israel.
Israeli media has spoken warmly about Milei’s “deep connection to Judaism” and that his leadership style is modelled on Moses, a prophet that is important to the Hebrew faith in addition to Muslims and Christians.
‘Delve deeper in Judaism’
In an interview with Radio Jai, a Jewish radio station broadcasting in Argentina, Milei said that his interactions with an observant Jewish student at university had initially inspired his interest in Judaism.
While the 52-year-old Argentinian is not Jewish, Milei said he regularly studies the Torah with Rabbi Shimon Axel Wahnish from ACILBA, the Moroccan Jewish community in Argentina.
Milei has also expressed his desire to “travel to Jerusalem to delve deeper into his studies of the Torah, Talmud, and other Jewish scriptures”.
In an interview with the Spanish newspaper El Pais, he said he was “considering” converting to Judaism. But if he was elected president, practising the faith would be difficult while running the country.
“If I’m president and it’s Shabbat, what do I do? Am I going to disconnect from the country from Friday to Saturday? There are some issues that would make [the religion] incompatible,” he told El Pais.
At his political rallies, Milei has repudiated neo-Nazi supporters, but many have flocked to his rallies, some of whom have attended wearing neo-Nazi uniforms.
With Argentinians struggling to cope with a cost of living crisis that has seen inflation rise to 100 percent, Milei has seen his popularity skyrocket.
A Milei presidency would be a marked contrast to the presidency of one his recent predecessor’s – Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner – a centre-left politician who ran the country between 2007-2015.
Kirchner criticized Israel’s disproportionate use of force against the Palestinians in May 2021, when over the course of 11 days, Israeli forces killed 256 Palestinians, including 66 children.
Since then, however, relations between the countries have warmed, with the Argentinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs controversially adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism.
Advocates against the IHRA definition have called it flawed for disproportionately impacting people of colour and Jewish advocates for Palestine.
Elis Gjevori is a journalist based in Istanbul