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ARGENTINA | 27-11-2023 21:00

Milei’s conversion to Judaism seals pro-Israel push by Argentina

President-elect Javier Milei's fervently pro-Israel stance singles out Argentina, already home to the region’s largest Jewish population, as Israel’s top ally in Latin America.

Javier Milei’s incoming administration is shaping up to be one of the most pro-Israel governments in Argentina’s history, at a time other Latin American nations have spoken out against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s strategy to eradicate Hamas.

A week after winning the November 19 run-off election, Milei arrived in New York on Monday morning for his first trip abroad as president-elect and headed straight to the tomb of a famous orthodox Jewish rabbi in Queens. Donning a kippah and all black outfit, he visited Menachem Mendel Schneerson’s grave to pay respects. 

The symbolic gesture illustrates how committed the incoming leader is to deepening Argentina’s cultural and political ties with Israel while much of Latin America, a Catholic stronghold, remains neutral or even critical. 

Milei went to the Ohel Chabad Lubavitch before any other meetings with US officials and the International Monetary Fund in Washington. The president-elect is converting to Judaism, as per one of his spokespersons, and on Saturday participated in a Jewish ceremony in Buenos Aires where he received a blessing from another rabbi. 

Less than two weeks before he takes office and without a full Cabinet in place, he called the US visit a “spiritual” trip — the second of its kind since early September. It remains unclear when Milei, who grew up Catholic, chose to convert.

The incoming president’s fervently pro-Israel stance singles out Argentina, already home to the region’s largest Jewish population, as Israel’s top ally in Latin America. Milei has repeatedly said he plans to visit the country and move Argentina’s Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. 

At the same time, he’s only starting to smooth over relations with Pope Francis, who is Argentine, after previously heaping criticism on him as a candidate.

While Argentina has traditionally sustained good relationships with Israel — outgoing President Alberto Fernandez picked the Middle Eastern nation for his first international trip as head of state in January 2020 — Milei’s approach contrasts with increasing criticism from Latin America’s leftist leaders over Israel’s offensive in the Gaza Strip. 

Earlier this month, Colombian President Gustavo Petro threatened to suspend diplomatic ties after Israeli officials called some of his comments anti-Semitic, while Chilean leader Gabriel Boric temporarily pulled his ambassador from the Jewish state to protest its attack in Gaza. The hard-left government of Bolivia cut off diplomatic relations with Israel altogether, accusing it of “crimes against humanity.” Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has taken a more neutral approach, though he too has criticised Israel’s response. 

To Carlos Ruckauf, Argentina’s vice-president in the late 1990s, Milei’s trip this week reflects his government’s international priorities. 

“To go so early to the US or signal he would go to Israel sends a very clear message about Milei’s foreign policy,” he said in an interview.

The new president’s strategy comes at a time when stakes are high: Hamas held up to 21 Argentine nationals hostage after its October attack in Israel, one of the largest nationalities involved in the assault. Six Argentine captives were among the 11 hostages being freed from Gaza on Monday, La Nación newspaper reported. 

Argentina’s Jewish community — approximately 220,000 people — has also faced violence at home. In 1992, the Israeli Embassy in Argentina was bombed. Two years later, a car bomber attacked the AMIA Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires, killing 85 people and injuring hundreds in the nation’s deadliest terrorist attack. 

To other observers, Milei’s support for Israel represents more of a tilt than a shift in the country’s existing policy.

“His personal passion on the issue, his strong personal beliefs, let us anticipate that Argentina’s support for Israel will intensify,” Juan Cruz Díaz, managing director of Buenos Aires consultancy Cefeidas Group, said. “We’re talking more about continuity than disruption.”

by Patrick Gillespie & Manuela Tobias, Bloomberg

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