Argentina’s far-right presidential frontrunner wants to become Jewish

Javier Milei studies Jewish topics regularly with Buenos Aires rabbi but admits observing Sabbath may be obstacle to converting; he also vows to move country’s embassy to Jerusalem

Javier Milei, presidential candidate of the Liberty Advances coalition, raises his arms at his campaign headquarters after polling stations closed during primary elections in Buenos Aires, Argentina, August 13, 2023. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
Javier Milei, presidential candidate of the Liberty Advances coalition, raises his arms at his campaign headquarters after polling stations closed during primary elections in Buenos Aires, Argentina, August 13, 2023. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

BUENOS AIRES (JTA) — Argentina has never had a Jewish president. But that concept could move a step closer to reality after a general election in October.

That’s because on Sunday, the leading vote-getter in national primary elections was Javier Milei, a libertarian who wants to convert Argentina’s currency to the US dollar and has made headlines for controversial comments on hot-button topics ranging from climate change to sex education.

He also wants to convert to Judaism.

In an interview with Spain’s El Pais last month, Milei said he is considering conversion. One of the obstacles getting in the way: observing Shabbat.

“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. The rabbi who helps me study says that I should read the Torah from the point of view of economic analysis,” he said.

Milei, a 52-year-old economist who was raised Catholic and who leads the two-year-old La Libertad Avanza (Freedom Advances) party, studies Jewish topics regularly with Rabbi Shimon Axel Wahnish, who heads ACILBA, an Argentine-Moroccan Jewish community based in Buenos Aires.

Argentine congressman and presidential pre-candidate for La Libertad Avanza Alliance Javier Milei delivers a speech during the closing of his campaign for the August 13 primary elections, at the Movistar Arena in Buenos Aires on August 7, 2023. (Photo by Luis ROBAYO / AFP)

“He is a person I love very much, whom I consult regularly,” Milei said in an interview with Radio Jai, a Jewish radio station that broadcasts from Buenos Aires. “These are discussions that suddenly can take two or three hours and that for me are very gratifying and help me grow a lot and understand situations in a much deeper way.”

There is little unsurprising about Milei’s persona, policy principles and electoral success. The bushy-headed politician with long sideburns received 30% of the primary vote, after polls predicted he would earn 15-20%, defeating both the ruling left-wing Peronist party and the main conservative opposition bloc.

Primary voting is mandatory for most adults in Argentina, so primary elections are seen as an accurate bellwether of subsequent general elections.

Milei is often referred to as “far right,” “libertarian” and “anarcho-capitalist.” He blames the establishment for the country’s poverty levels and soaring inflation rates, and he points to their issues with corruption. If elected, he says he would dismantle Argentina’s central bank and sharply cut public spending.

Beyond economics, he has called climate change a “socialist lie,” has said that the free market should dictate organ donations and believes sex education is a ploy to destroy family values. (He is also a former tantric sex coach.)

In public appearances, Milei often quotes Torah passages. He walked out on stage for a campaign event at an arena in Buenos Aires earlier this month to a recording of a shofar, the ram’s horn blown on Rosh Hashanah.

He has visited the Buenos Aires Holocaust Museum and last July traveled to New York, where visited the grave of the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the influential former spiritual leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement.

Milei and his vice presidential candidate, Victoria Villaruel, were the only two Argentine lawmakers to vote against a bill that would make July 18, the date of the 1994 AMIA Jewish center bombing, a national day of mourning. A group of families of victims of the attack shouted at Milei at this year’s commemoration ceremony for the incident that killed 85 people.

After sharp criticism, Milei tried to change his vote, but his request was denied by the president of the Chamber of Deputies.

Milei is staunchly pro-Israel and has said that his “two great allies are the United States and Israel.” If elected, he has vowed to move the Argentine embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — and make his first foreign trip as president to Israel, where he said he would “delve deeper into his studies of the Torah, Talmud, and other Jewish scriptures,” according to local news outlet La Nacion.

Milei also has several mastiff dogs, at least two of them named for Jewish economists: Milton, for Nobel Prize winner Milton Friedman, and Murray, for Murray Rothbard — who is often called the father of anarcho-capitalism, which advocates for stateless societies.

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