Residents of Buenos Aires flooded the city’s sprawling avenues and plazas last week, cookware and kitchen utensils in hand, to literally bang out their fury over a head-spinning series of economic and public policy changes that are deeply dividing Argentina. In what’s been described as “shock therapy” for the country’s failing economy, sectors from healthcare to construction have been deregulated, labor rights have been gutted and nine out of 18 state ministries have been eliminated altogether.
Behind it all is the self-proclaimed “anarcho-capitalist” economist, television pundit and lambchop sideburn-laden populist President Javier Milei, who took office at the end of 2023. Milei’s rapid rise was fueled in part by his relative outsider status in a moment of economic crisis caused by what Milei calls the failed political “caste.” Argentina is grappling with inflation rates of more than 200%, a 40% poverty rate, plummeting foreign currency reserves and massive sovereign debt.
Milei, who defeated his institutional political opponents in a run-off, cited the Hanukkah story of the Maccabees in his inauguration speech in December, describing the Jewish warriors’ successful revolt against the ruling class in the 2nd century B.C. as a “symbol of the victory of the weak over the powerful.” This was no coincidence. Alongside his transgressive public presence and radical policy decrees, Milei emphatically embraces Judaism.
Born and raised Catholic, like the majority of Argentines, Milei has in recent years studied the Torah with great intrigue. He claims that he is seriously considering converting to Orthodox Judaism, but says he would do this only after his term in office, given the strict lifestyle requirements of orthodoxy. And he has voiced full-throated support for Israel’s ongoing bombardment of Gaza.
At his inauguration, Milei hosted conservative populist Viktor Orbán. The Hungarian prime minister, who is a close ally of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has drawn harsh critiques for his attempts to downplay the Hungarian role in the persecution of Jewish people during World War II and for his demonization of American-Hungarian philanthropist George Soros, who is Jewish. Also at the inauguration and invited to light the Hanukkah menorah was Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, whose dependence on Western powers to defend Ukraine against Russia’s invasion has made him a symbol of liberal internationalism — one that the isolationist populist right has grown to loathe. After the ceremony, Zelenskyy, who is Jewish, was seen confronting Orbán over the Hungarian prime minister’s obstruction of efforts to get European Union aid to Ukraine.
Shortly before his inauguration, Milei received blessings from the famed Kabbalistic rabbi David Hanania Pinto. After his inauguration, Milei flew to New York to visit the tomb of “the Rebbe,” as the influential Hasidic spiritual leader Menachem Mendel Schneerson who died in 1994, is known; his burial place was also famously visited before Election Day 2016 by Ivanka Trump, herself a convert. After the gravesite visit, Milei dined with former U.S. President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, and Gerardo Werthein, a close personal friend of Clinton’s, who will soon become Argentina’s ambassador to the U.S. Werthein too is Jewish.
On the outside at least, Milei holds many contradictions. His embrace of a nationalist populist like Orbán suggests one set of priorities, while his kinship with Zelenskyy, a Jewish leader raising money globally for the war with Russia, suggests another. The same could be said of his visit to a religiously conservative spiritual site followed by lunch with a neoliberal Democrat who famously scandalized the White House by having an affair with an intern. Politically, religiously and stylistically, Milei is difficult to categorize.
Like other populists, his perceived authenticity is his biggest political asset. But who is the authentic Milei? Venezuelan journalist Moises Naim wrote in El País that there are two Mileis: One is the bespectacled libertarian economist who may actually break an economic gridlock for Argentina. The other is the tantric sex expert with an Austin Powers hairdo who famously hired a medium to speak with his deceased dog and dead people who told him he would win the presidency.
In a similar vein, there seem to be two Mileis with Judaism: One who has a sincere calling to the faith and all its intricate pluralisms, and one who dialogues with a global right that has used Israel as a symbol of conservative ethnonationalism while also engaging in antisemitic rhetorical tropes that have galvanized and won the support of disaffected, largely white Christian voters in both the U.S. and Europe.
Argentina itself is a place of contradictions in recent Jewish history. It has given safety to Jews fleeing persecution throughout the 20th century — they now compose about 0.5% of the population and represent Latin America’s largest Jewish community. But it also gave refuge to Nazis escaping war crimes tribunals after the Holocaust. A Spanish judiciary commission found that during Argentina’s military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983, Jews were disproportionately targeted for torture and disappearance.
Milei has downplayed the “dirty war” carried out by that anti-communist military regime, which investigators later estimated to have ordered the extrajudicial killings of more than 20,000 people. His vice president, Victoria Villarruel, has pushed what the Buenos Aires Times called a “denialist discourse” about the history of the dictatorship. Families of victims have expressed fear that whitewashing Argentina’s darkest chapter of the 20th century could pave the way for history to repeat itself.
In more recent decades, Argentina has become the site of proxy attacks on Israeli and Jewish institutions carried out by Iranian-aligned extremist groups. A 1992 suicide bombing on the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires killed 29 people and a similar attack on a Jewish community center two years later killed 85. Decades later, investigations into the bombings were marred by allegations that sitting government officials, including the left-wing president at the time, Cristina de Kirchner, had orchestrated a cover-up and committed. Alberto Nisman, the federal prosecutor investigating these allegations, was found dead in his apartment in 2015, shortly before he was scheduled to present his findings.
And despite Milei’s embrace of Judaism, his own administration is not immune to antisemitic allegiances. His attorney general, Rodolfo Barra, was once forced to resign from a government job when it was discovered he had been part of neo-Nazi group Tacuara.
The Israel-Hamas war has of course ratcheted up tensions around these cases, and in Jewish and Arab communities across the country.
“For most people, his Judaism is another eccentricity,” says writer Tamara Tenenbaum, whose father was killed in the 1994 Jewish community center bombing. Tenenbaum was part of a diverse group of Argentine Jewish intellectuals and leaders who signed a letter, “Milei does not represent us,” noting how Milei had been embraced by right-wing political projects around the world that champion Israel while simultaneously leaning into antisemitic tropes — through the vilification of concepts like “globalism” or “cultural marxism”— and supporting other forms of racism and discrimination. All this comes against a backdrop of a rising evangelical population in Argentina that supports both Milei and Israel, but may resist more progressive visions held by some segments of the Jewish community.
“I got a lot of antisemitic hate online from supporters of Milei,” Tenenbaum told me. “Your surname speaks for you,” one person wrote her. Another message read: “Of course you are a leftist whore with that name.”
Since taking office, Milei has announced pro-Israel policies, like declaring Hamas a terrorist organization, installing his personal rabbi, Axel Wahnish, as ambassador to Israel, and declaring intentions to move Argentina’s Israel embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
The moves have inspired what Buenos Aires-based rabbi Fabián Skolnik calls “two opposing sentiments” among Argentine Jews who support Milei. On the one hand, “the community feels pride and happiness to have a pro-Jewish, pro-Israel president. He participates in community activities, in Hanukkah, in Jewish life.” Yet on the other hand, having a president visibly associated with Judaism inspires worry. “If things don’t go well and issues start to emerge, a lot of folks in the Jewish community are afraid that will awaken antisemitism.”
Not simply in style or words, Milei has networked himself with a posse of populist right-wing politicians worldwide, many members of which have embraced Israel, sometimes in spite of their own antisemitic leanings, in a fight against Islamic extremism or the fabled brand of communism they say is threatening to traditional family values. Right-wing populist leaders who celebrated Milei’s victory have in recent years also specifically embraced Netanyahu, Israel and “Judeo-Christian” conservative values — be they former U.S. President Donald Trump or former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who also proposed moving the Brazilian embassy to Jerusalem after the U.S. did as much in 2018.
Milei appears to be interested in aligning himself with other figures who may support his vision for austerity. “He happens to be in the same box as nationalist populist figures,” said Juan Soto, who has organized right-wing leaders including Milei in his work with the Disenso Foundation, a think-tank arm of Spain’s far right Vox Party. To wit, Milei signed onto the 2020 Carta de Madrid, a brief manifesto penned by the Disenso Foundation that denounced the supposedly encroaching specter of communism in Spain, Latin America and the United States.
But, Soto told me, “economic protectionism is where the New Right can be divided.” He described Milei as an outlier, in that he is “a free marketeer, a classical liberal, who needs international help.” In this sense too, Milei embodies contradictions. He is a libertarian who wants to dollarize the Argentine economy, who will also deeply rely on the International Monetary Fund — which Argentina owes $32 billion — to course correct his country’s economy. This is a far cry from other populist parties who embrace economic nationalism or alternative transnational cooperation with some of the U.S.’s rivals, such as BRICS — which Milei has refused to join — whose founding members are Brazil, Russia, India and China.
Milei may align with Vox’s Carta de Madrid, but he doesn’t align with Old World conservatism that sometimes veers into Putin fetishism, as in the case of Hungary’s Orbán. In this sense, we have to understand Milei’s as a distinctly New World brand. He welcomes Yankee internationalism and displays a unique mash-up of embracing libertine social preferences mixed with conservative religious guidance. He has supporters with antisemitic leanings, but he himself loves Judaism. Milei may be more like Nayib Bukele, the president of El Salvador with Palestinian ancestry, who staunchly supports Israel, decries Hamas and has taken extreme measures to enact change in El Salvador — much akin to Milei’s campaign spirit of waving a chainsaw as a symbol of drastic change coming. In a battle to eradicate the country’s drug cartels, Bukele has taken a “state of exception” to extremes, overseeing the arrests of nearly 60,000 people alongside enforced disappearances, torture of detainees and an overall dissolution of due process. These measures have drastically reduced El Salvador’s once record-high homicide rate, but at a tremendous cost to its democracy and to the tens of thousands affected by Bukele’s scorched-earth approach.
Perhaps part of Milei’s interest in aligning with traditionalist or religious factions of the global right on issues like abortion, which he firmly opposes, is to distinguish himself from “social-marxist” opponents and civil rights detractors. “If you have an important figure in the global right like Milei who is so strongly interested in Judaism, it is an important building block in the ‘Judeo-Christian’ coalition,” says Rabbi Slomo Koves, a leader of the Hungarian Chabad, a highly networked sect of Judaism known for encouraging more religious observance among Jews. The global right’s embrace of the “Judeo” within the “Judeo-Christian” coalition could mitigate antisemitism within some rank-and-file. Or it could just help to cover it up.
While holding all of these contradictions on the global stage and at home, Milei is already bringing shock therapy to Argentina’s bedraggled economy. At the World Economic Forum in Davos this year – the nationalist’s symbol of greedy globalists – Milei addressed business leaders saying they were “social benefactors” and that free markets, not socialism, would save Argentina. He is a populist stradling the “globalist” and the “nationalist” divide. He is a potential Jewish convert navigating support for two different Jewish leaders, supporting two very different wars in Ukraine and the Middle East. At home, he is alternately donning his economist glasses and his chainsaw. How will all this impact Argentina’s economy, Jewish population and national fabric? We’ll soon find out.