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Argentina’s Would-Be Jewish Trump

While promising to dollarize Argentina’s economy and defeat the country’s political class, Javier Milei, the outsider in this weekend’s election runoff, keeps the Torah close

Martín Sivak
November 16, 2023

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In June 2021, Javier Gerardo Milei, a 50-year-old economist, was a political neophyte up for representative of Buenos Aires in the national Chamber of Deputies, under his La Libertad Avanza party. He was mortified by generic accusations of being a “Nazi” that had been directed at him on social media. Over the ensuing months, these would get amplified to such a degree that the unthinkable happened: In March 2023, even the country’s president, Alberto Fernandez, would say that “Milei is a threat to democracy” and, as if the comparison were possible, reminded people that “Hitler did not come [to power] through a coup d’état, he came through the German people’s vote.” Milei called Julio Goldestein, a politician in his party and his conduit to the Jewish community, to meet at a hotel. Goldestein suggested some ways to restrain the attacks, and proposed an introduction to Shimon Axel Wahnish, the chief rabbi of the Moroccan Jewish community of Argentina (ACILBA).

Goldestein accompanied Milei to that first meeting with Wahnish, but he did not go in for their interview. “They spoke at length, and then it turned into a kabbalistic meeting in which the rabbi noted that Javier would lead a liberationist movement in Argentina. Milei left the meeting excited,” Goldestein told me. From then on, Milei studied Torah with Wahnish.

Twenty-six months after that encounter, in August 2023, Milei won the most votes in Argentina’s presidential primaries. He came in second in the general election in October, and will be on the ballot Nov. 19 against Sergio Massa, the economy minister in the incumbent Peronist government. Milei plans to introduce radical change to Argentina during an abysmal crisis. The poverty index is over 40%, inflation is at 143% annually, there are 20 different exchange rates for U.S. dollars, along with a crushing external debt. Milei’s proposal is to dollarize the economy, as has been done in Ecuador, El Salvador, and Zimbabwe, and to eliminate the Central Bank in a framework of all-out defense of the market economy, along with a vague but electorally expedient promise to end the country’s political class.

In the midst of this proposal for change, Milei, born Catholic, has advanced his own personal change: a conversion to Judaism. He told me about it during a two-hour conversation on July 16 in loaned offices across from the River Plate, in Puerto Madero, central Buenos Aires. There was no furniture, nor paintings. Just three seats for us to sit on, and a mirror still in its packaging. I asked him if there was something holding back his conversion plan.

“If you are Jewish,” he told me, “because your mother is Jewish, you are not obligated to comply with the precepts of Judaism. If you convert, you are obligated to. If I become president, what will I do during Shabbat? Are you going to disconnect from the country at sundown Friday to sundown Saturday? Questions like this make it incompatible.”

At the time Milei was polling a distant third place, and his results in various previous state elections were fairly bad. Even so, he was thinking about the practical dilemma of how to handle Sabbath restrictions while being president. From what I can glean from Milei’s unstable personality, he’d started to read the Torah as part of his nerdy approach to economic theory. But as he discovered a new world opened up to him by Torah study, he glimpsed the possibility of a more spiritual life, at which point he’d decided to convert to Judaism. (As of this writing, he has not yet completed his conversion.)

On that July afternoon, Milei was in a notably bad mood. He had fought with one of his campaign managers over an ad, and his body showed the wear of the 11-hour New York-to-Buenos Aires flight he had taken that morning. He hadn’t made public his trip or his reasons for it: to visit the tomb of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, known as the Lubavitcher Rebbe. A Twitter user had uploaded a short video showing Milei wearing a kippah, with a Torah under his arm.

When I asked Milei about his foreign policy, he was cutting.

“Our most natural allies are the United States and Israel. I want nothing to do with the communists of Cuba, China, North Korea. What does that mean? Trade with whoever you want, but I am not going to foment those relationships.”

Like Trump, Milei wants to move the Argentine Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Argentina is the country with the most Jews in Latin America, and ranks fifth in Jewish population outside of Israel.

One day after Hamas’ brutal Oct. 7 attack on Israel, where nine of the 1,400 dead were Argentine, the second presidential debate was held in Buenos Aires. Milei declared his solidarity with Israel and its “full right to defend its territory from terrorists.” He claimed that no other candidate would go as far in their support. He promises to be the Argentine president most friendly to Israel.

Up until the pandemic in early 2020, Milei worked as chief economist for an important economic group, Eduardo Eurnekian’s America Corporation. Eurnekian is a 90-year-old airport magnate and one of the five richest people in Argentina. Milei began to make appearances on television, in particular on a channel in which Eurnekian owned shares. He got noticed for his histrionics, his piques of anger, and his premeditadedly unruly hair. Nothing was meant to go unnoticed. Not even his relationship with his dogs.

Milei owns four English mastiffs that he named after economists—Murray (Rothbard), Milton (Friedman), Robert, and Lucas (for Robert Lucas)—and he considers them his grandchildren. They are cloned from Conan, who died in 2017. He has said that Conan was the being that he most loved in his life and the only one, along with his sister Karina, who has never betrayed him. When I asked him if it was true that he still talked to Conan, he replied that it was a private matter. As a television pundit he has brought his mastiffs to the studios of America TV.

In those appearances, his central theme was the economy and economic theory in a country that was demanding explanations for its cyclical, worsening crises of the last few years. Milei declared himself an admirer of the late 19th-century Austrian school of economics. The market is everything, the state should be nothing, he postulated. He was headed for anarcho-capitalism and to finding an identity: libertarian liberalism.

If I become president, what will I do during Shabbat? Are you going to disconnect from the country at sundown Friday to sundown Saturday?

The strict quarantine Fernandez’s center-left Peronist government imposed during the pandemic was heavily criticized, in particular for the prolonged shutdown of schools. Bit by bit, Milei began to gather in Buenos Aires all those angry at the lockdowns, and he managed, in the name of liberty, to gain some sticking power among the under-30 set. He had for the first time in his life stepped into party politics, and he decided to run for national representative for Buenos Aires.

During one of those assemblies, Milei found onstage a powerful phrase: “I’m not here to guide sheep, I’m here to awaken lions.” He wanted to invert the kind of representation that he believed the governing Peronism offered: a state that herds and supports its followers based on perks and clientelism. His hair helped suggest the symbolism of the party lion. That symbol needed an anthem, and he found “Panic Show,” a song by the Argentine rock group Le Renga:

Hello everyone! I am the lion

The beast roared in the middle of the avenue

Everyone ran, not knowing why,

Panic show in the full light of day

Please don’t run from me

I am the king of a lost world

I am the king, and I will destroy you,

All accomplices are appetizing to me.

In the 2021 legislative elections, Milei got 17% of the vote in the city of Buenos Aires, which represents 7% of the national vote. After that auspicious result he began to plan his presidential candidacy, with the disadvantage of lacking a national party, but with one relative advantage: the poor handling of the economic crisis by the Peronist government and its predecessor. Mauricio Macri, a right-wing businessman, ex-president of the Boca Juniors professional soccer team, had risen to power in 2015 with a promise of change. To avoid defaulting on its international debt, Argentina got the largest loan in the history of the International Monetary Fund: $44 billion. Despite that extraordinary aid, Macri didn’t make it out of the first round in the following elections. On that double frustration—the discouraging economic situation under the past two governments and no real prospects for the future—Milei has been capturing the anger going around.

Milei lifts a chainsaw next to Buenos Aires province gubernatorial candidate Carolina Piparo of La Libertad Avanza during a rally in San Martin, Buenos Aires, on Sept. 25, 2023
Milei lifts a chainsaw next to Buenos Aires province gubernatorial candidate Carolina Piparo of La Libertad Avanza during a rally in San Martin, Buenos Aires, on Sept. 25, 2023

Tomas Cuesta/Getty Images

The close of the 2023 primary campaign was the second Monday of August, at the Movistar Arena, which was built on land belonging to Atlanta, a Jewish athletic club in Villa Crespo—one of the neighborhoods of Buenos Aires with a large Jewish population. In the 1950s and ’60s, a question made the rounds on radio and television: What is the capital of Israel? Villa Crespo, also called Villa Kreplaj. Raanan Rein, the Israeli historian who has written about 20th-century Argentina, tells in his book Fútbol, Jews and the Making of Argentina how for first-generation Jewish immigrants, belonging to Atlanta was a form of conversion, to become Argentines.

The night the campaign came to a close, Milei gathered some 13,000 people. After the lights went out, the screen lit up with an illustration of a man with an instrument in the form of a ram’s horn, and under it the word shofar in white letters. The goal of the symbol was pedagogical: to present the instrument to a people who knew nothing about the Jewish world or its culture. If on Rosh Hashanah the shofar is blown to welcome the new year, at the Atlanta event it marked the start of a series of images of buildings collapsing, maritime explosions, seas parting, smoke, fire, and huge waves. These images could be understood as representing the will to rebuild Argentina after its catastrophes.

From one of the corners of the field, Milei appeared wearing a suit. With a practiced step, he headed to the stage, surrounded by supporters.

“All the political class is appetizing to me,” he shouted wildly, uninhibited, citing his theme song “Panic Show.” It was also an evocation of the young Milei, who used to sing covers of The Rolling Stones with his band Everest.

“You tell ’em, Wig!” shouted a man in his 60s, tall, serious and beetle-browed, standing next to me in Movistar Arena.

The mostly young crowd was not one that might typically attend a political rally, except for a few of them who were wearing name-brand soccer jerseys, hats, and shoes. It seemed more like the audience that might attend a concert at Movistar Arena. Some were wearing hats with the motto “Strength From Heaven,” a favorite of Karina Milei, the candidate’s sister and campaign manager. It’s an abbreviation of 1 Maccabees 3:19: “It is not on the size of the army that victory in battle depends, but from heaven the strength.”

In the crowd I spotted a friend’s son, the only one there wearing a kippah.

“I like Milei because he’s seriously opposed to the political caste,” Ariel, 22, told me.

But neither the shofar, nor the choice of Atlanta, nor the Maccabean phrase were aimed at Ariel, nor at the Jewish vote, which electoral sociologists don’t recognize as a variable in Argentina. It’s more from Milei’s own interest in the Torah and Judaism.

One week after the Atlanta event came the largest electoral shakeup since the return of democracy in 1983. Milei won the election with 30% of the vote, just 2 percentage points more than another opposition candidate, from the center-right Juntos por el Cambio party, and 3 points more than the government. But that win, which neither the pollsters, nor the analysts, nor the mainstream media predicted, gave Milei momentum heading into the October general elections.

Alas, the elections witnessed a second black swan event: Massa, the government candidate and economy minister, won with almost 37% of the vote, compared with Milei’s 30% and 24% for Juntos por el Cambio. With consumer prices soaring above 12%, poverty at 40%, and economic collapse amid persistent social decline, Massa defied all expectations to take on Milei in a runoff. Patricia Bullrich, the candidate from the third-place party, announced a few days after that she would be supporting Milei. In the midst of a massive economic crisis, Argentina appears to be on a roller coaster of electoral emotions that will end on Nov. 19, when Milei may or may not become the next president of Argentina.

Unlike Donald Trump, who chose the narrative of an outsider but achieved the presidency as a Republican, or Jair Bolsonaro, who was a member of different political parties for many years before ascending to the presidency of Brazil, Milei had no party, and just a bare-bones legal apparatus for launching his candidacy in 2021. The Integration and Development Movement (MID), a tiny party without parliamentary representation, was one of the parties that loaned its cloak to Milei, through its leaders Julio Goldestein and Oscar Zago. Goldestein, an economist by profession, has a political history: first with a student chapter of the centrist Radical Civic Union (UCR), then as an adviser to President Fernando de la Rua (of the conservative wing of the UCR) when he was a national senator, and later in second- and third-tier positions in Radical, Peronist, and Juntos por el Cambio governments.

“You have a clean and pure stamp here,” Goldestein and Zago told Milei before the first election, referring to the MID. (The remark was confirmed by both Goldestein and Milei’s camp.)

As part of their agreement, Zago became third on the list of legislators from Buenos Aires in 2021. In the 2023 election, Zago and Goldestein were second and fourth on the candidates lists for national representative for Buenos Aires. Goldestein was the only candidate from the Jewish community on any of the lists.

“In 2021 we began to have talks on specific questions about the Torah, and we argued over who knew more,” Goldestein remembered. “I said that the first economic project is in there, and it was Joseph’s when in Egypt he saw seven years of skinny cows and seven years of fat cows and understood economic cycles.”

At that time, Milei was not systematically studying Torah. His interest began years before, when he was an economic tutor for a member of the low-profile Sutton family, owners of two of the most important hotels in Argentina—the Alvear in Buenos Aires and the Patagonia Llao Llao. As Milei remembered it, his student, who wanted to be a rabbi, asked him the best questions he had ever heard about economics.

Milei started systematically studying Torah in June 2021, the day Goldestein introduced him to Rabbi Wahnish. A modern Orthodox doctor of educational psychology, Wahnish was director and professor at a Jewish study center for young college students at Sucath David Programs, until he took over the Moroccan Jewish community of Argentina (ACILBA). ACILBA has its headquarters in the heart of Palermo, one of the hippest neighborhoods of Buenos Aires. Its self-described goal is to “assist any member of the community in whatever way they need, with all types of spiritual consultations and accompanying them through every step of life. Hewing to our Moroccan roots, living a present of continual growth, and dreaming of a future where all Jews can be part of the community.” During the pandemic, Wahnish became known for his “couples spaces.” “We have the illusion that marriage will help us solve a lot of the drama that we bring, but no, marriage amplifies the problems,” he would say in those classes, as the Argentine newspaper Perfil described them.

Milei’s study method has been mostly in-person and sometimes by text messages, in which he also sends Torah passages. “He’s someone I love a lot, who I consult regularly, and sometimes the conversations require two or three hours: He stimulates me to do economical readings of Torah,” Milei told me. Wahnish declined to speak to me for this article and he has so far not made any public declarations about his relationship to the Libertad Avanza presidential candidate.

Milei began to fold his Torah reading into his public discourse. “My main reference, to whom I continually refer, is Moses,” he said in April of this year. He spoke of Moses’ infinite humility. “I work to be more humble, a battle you must wage every day against ego, greed, and lust.” He added, “Moses was finally rewarded with the greatest of all prizes, which is to know the One”—a reference to God. On a television program, he also said that Moses was a great leader but he didn’t know how to publicize his message. “God sent him Aaron to spread the word. Kari is Moses and I am the one who spreads the word,” he said, before breaking down in tears. Kari is his sister Karina, whom he masculinizes in Spanish, calling her “El Jefe.”

Carlos Maslatón is a lawyer and was a political leader until the 1990s when he turned to finance, later joining the ranks alongside Milei. An influencer and a regular presence in the media and on TV, Maslatón was always a reference for Milei in his nascent approach to the Jewish world, until Milei had a personal and political rupture with him.

In August 2021, two months before the election for representative, Maslatón had lunch with Milei and Wahnish in ACILBA. Maslatón saw in Milei a purely religious interpretation of Judaism, a Christian interpretation that was different than his own, which was, in his own words, more of a nation-building project. This is why he gave Milei Paul Johnson’s A History of the Jews, with the idea of offering Milei more of a universalist vision of Judaism, removed from the more religious one he also saw in Wahnish. Milei asked Maslatón to dedicate it to him: “Dedicated to a great friend of the Jewish people and State of Israel, Javier Milei.” He also gave him Martin Gilbert’s Jewish History Atlas. On Aug. 31, 2021, Maslatón publicized this encounter, convinced that studying Torah with Wahnish would only reinforce in Milei that religious vision of Judaism.

Two months later, after the great electoral results in Buenos Aires, Milei started in on the weekly parsha and would read Talmud without assistance, Goldestein said. In November, he called Maslatón with a revelation.

“Milei told me that he spoke to the Almighty,” Maslatón recounted. “He said that he had been given the order to fight to make Argentina a liberal country. What was my response? How interesting. What am I going to tell him? With that he had entered a messianic period. He sees himself in this situation: climbing Mount Sinai, coming down with the Tablets of the Law, and rekindling the fire.”

Javier Milei at a 2021 campaign rally in Buenos Aires
Javier Milei at a 2021 campaign rally in Buenos Aires

Anita Pouchard Serra/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Despite such an intense approach to the religious texts, Milei was never able to establish relationships with the main Jewish communal institutions, such as the Delegation of Argentine Jewish Associations (DAIA) or the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA). In the first case, he believes that DAIA is too conditioned by its long association with the other opposition party, Juntos por el Cambio. With AMIA he has never gotten beyond the most basic formalities, according to representatives contacted for this article.

One episode mortifies him. This year the National Congress approved a law that declared July 18 as a national day of mourning for the victims of the AMIA bombings in 1994 that caused the death of 85 people. Milei first voted against it, and then he asked to change his vote. This last July 18, on the occasion of the commemoration, Milei was rebuked by some in attendance for his initial vote. “It was a plot against me,” he said—an idea that he returns to in other areas.

Alejandro Dujovne, a social scientist and author of the Argentine canonical text Una historia del libro judío (A History of the Jewish Book), explains Milei’s relationship to Judaism: “He approaches Judaism and claims to be converting to it, but his approach to and his understanding of the Jewish experience seems to be exclusively centered on the Torah. The social dimension, the centrality of communal life, is foreign to Milei. He probably does not understand what an organization like AMIA is or what function it serves, nor would he know the extension and vitality of the institutional interweaving of schools, sports clubs, synagogues. And still less the diversity of religious, cultural, and political viewpoints that shape Argentinian Jewish life.”

On Sept. 21, nearly 4,000 Jewish artists and intellectuals—the majority identifying with the left and progressive causes—published a letter of concern for “expressions of hate” by Milei and his “political use of Judaism, its texts, and its symbols ... to underwrite his discourse of hate.” They say he makes “declarations of discriminatory, misogynistic content, contrary to sexual diversity, political plurality, and democratic coexistence in general.” They also accused Milei of decontextualizing religious texts for his own political goals.

One week later, there was another dust-up. Martín Krause, tapped for the education portfolio in a Milei administration, participated in a talk with other possible cabinet members of other candidates, at the Torcuato di Tella University. At one point in his presentation he used a rhetorical question to explain Argentina’s decadence, with the state being administered by chantas (a very Argentine expression that could be translated as “unreliable”) and others who don’t do their jobs—a common topic for Milei, who is looking to drastically reduce the state.

“Imagine if the Gestapo had been Argentines. Wouldn’t it have been better?”

Krause answered his own question.

“Because instead of killing 6 million Jews it would have been less. Because there would have been bribes, inefficiencies, they would have been napping—but they were German. That was the problem.”

When the comments became public, they were repudiated by DAIA, other Jewish communal institutions, and every other candidate, for banalizing the Holocaust. Krause apologized, and Milei kept him in his potential cabinet.

Translated from the Spanish by Matthew Fishbane.

Martín Sivak is the author of eight works of nonfiction, including the international bestseller El salto de papá (2017). A journalist since the age of 18, he holds a Ph.D. in Latin American history from New York University and is a regular contributor to El País, a daily newspaper in Spain.