Milei at Yad Vashem: The social media controversy and a personal response

Milei at Yad Vashem: The social media controversy and a personal response
Argentinian president Javier Milei caused a controversy following a visit to Yad Vashem where he spoke about the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. / bne IntelliNews
By Jennifer DeLay February 12, 2024

Argentina’s President Javier Milei is no stranger to controversy. Indeed, he seems to relish it, given his penchant for fiery speeches, caustic social media posts and strong criticism of his political opponents.

In recent days, though, Milei has been faulted for a social media controversy that he may not have intended to start. The controversy hinges on the remarks he delivered after visiting Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre in Jerusalem, on the first full day of an official trip to Israel.

According to Yad Vashem, the Argentine president ended the visit with the writing of an emotional entry in the museum’s guestbook, speaking out against antisemitism and urging the world community to take the steps necessary to prevent a repetition of the Holocaust. He also delivered a speech expressing his strong sympathy for the Israeli government’s aims in the current war against Hamas, blasting the Islamic terror group for the attacks it carried out on October 7 and calling for the return of the many Israeli hostages still in captivity in Gaza – and also declaring his government’s intent to move Argentina’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Destruction and rebuilding

According to a video that has been posted on multiple social media sites, that speech included remarks concerning the rebuilding of the Temple, the ancient focal point of the Jewish religion, on the Temple Mount.

The guestbook entry was not the source of the controversy. Milei’s statements echo those made by countless other public figures. There are good and obvious reasons for this: Who really wants another genocide – or is crass enough to set that desire down in writing that is sure to be scrutinised, as a matter of public record?

Nor was the speech itself the source of extraordinary outrage. True, it did ruffle plenty of feathers. On the one hand, it did not echo the calls coming in from many corners for a cease-fire in Gaza, where the suffering of civilians has reached undeniably harsh levels. On the other hand, it went against the international community’s preference for upholding the polite fiction that the state of Israel has not made Jerusalem the seat of its government.

As such, it offered plenty of fodder for critics – both for critics of Milei and for critics of Israel’s war in Gaza. And there is nothing inherently wrong or extraordinary in that. People of goodwill can and do differ in their judgments on politicians and war policy.

Rather, the uproar stemmed from his words about the Temple. These were widely interpreted as a call for the razing of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Muslim structure that has crowned the Temple Mount in its current form for nearly 1,000 years, and the construction of a third Temple to replace the second, which was destroyed by Titus, the future Roman emperor, and his legions in the summer of 70 CE.

Jerusalem Peace Institute, went further. He not only

"Argentine President Javier Milei calls for the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem by demolishing Al Aqsa in order to bring the Messiah"

It's tempting to laugh this off

It's not funny.

We're in a war l in part driven by those who weaponize faith, crackpots like this incl.

— Daniel Seidemann (@DanielSeidemann) February 10, 2024 the video but called attention to its Hebrew-language headline, accusing Milei of having pushed for the rebuilding of the Temple and the destruction of Al-Aqsa in order to satisfy an explicitly religious and explicitly Jewish aim – namely, that of enabling the arrival of the Messiah.

According to Seidemann, the Argentine president’s words amount to – or can be perceived to amount to – a call for a Jewish holy war. “It’s tempting to laugh this off,” he wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. “It’s not funny. We’re in a war ... in part driven by those who weaponize faith, crackpots like this [included].”

It is not wrong to fear holy war, especially when there is already a war – a real war, with real bombs and real guns and real victims – in progress. And it is certainly not misguided to give voice to these fears at a time when the lives of the millions of people who live in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza are at stake – and when there is a real chance that the conflict could spread beyond Israel to the Middle East and beyond.

In other words, it’s not a bad thing to fear fire in a crowded theatre. But should that fear overshadow the question of whether the flames are the result of arson or accident?

My own judgment is that we do not have enough information to say yet.

Full disclosure

And yes, I am quite deliberately making this sudden switch from the third person to the first person. In the interest of full disclosure, I am breaking the old-fashioned journalistic convention of excising my private convictions from this article and speaking personally as a Jew, as an Orthodox Jew who is familiar with the religious reference that Milei made to the Temple, as a person who has converted to Judaism (as Milei himself has said he hopes to do once his political career is over).

I decided to write this article after hearing Milei’s remarks at Yad Vashem. To this end, I made a genuine attempt to find out exactly what he said – in full, and not only during the 1:49 video clip shown on social media sites. I was not able to make an exhaustive search, given time constraints and the regular demands of life, but I daresay my efforts were far from cursory.

In any event, my attempt failed. I was not able to find a full transcript of his speech. I was able to find some additional quotes from the speech on Mercopress and other sites, but I was not able to find a complete transcript of his remarks, which were delivered in Spanish and immediately translated into English.

And I believe this is important – for without a complete transcript, I cannot say whether Milei truly did issue a call for the destruction of Al-Aqsa (an act that would be illegal under Israeli law, which only gives Jewish religious authorities sway over specific sections of the public sphere). Nor can I say whether he made a reference to Jewish religious hopes for the coming of the Messiah.

Instead, the only thing I can actually comment on is the words he spoke in the above-referenced video.

And this is what I saw and heard.

What Milei did and didn’t say

The video did not include any mention of the messiah or any explicit call for the rebuilding of the Third Temple. (I am not ruling out the possibility that Milei did make statements to that effect, but I am stressing that he was not heard to do so in the video, either in his original statements in Spanish or in English translation.)

The video did include the recounting of an anecdote from the Talmud about an incident that occurred during the life of Rabbi Akiva, who died in the year 135 CE. Specifically, Milei referred to a story recounted on pages 24A-B of the tractate Makkos by saying (in English translation): “This story took place after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans. Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues were observing the Temple Mount in ruins, and they saw a fox leave the Holiest of Holies in the Temple. There could have been no more disheartening scene than that. In the face of this terrible scene, the rabbis cried in mourning, but Rabbi Akiva started to laugh. His colleagues asked how he could possibly laugh in the face of such a tragedy, to which Rabbi Akiva answered: ‘There’s a prophecy about the destruction that says that a fox will break into the Holiest of Holies. There is another prophecy that says that the same place will be rebuilt. Now that I’ve seen with my own eyes the prophecy come true, I laugh in joy and full of hope, as the second prophecy will surely come true.’”

The translation I have just quoted represents everything Milei said at Yad Vashem that was included in the video.

And yes, of course, these words are an expression of hope for the rebuilding of the Temple following its destruction by the Romans.

But an expression of hope – a wish, a statement of expectation concerning a prophecy that was made concerning the Second Temple and not the Third – is not the same thing as a call for the destruction of Al-Aqsa.

Once again, I am not ruling out the possibility that Milei did issue such a call in another part of his speech. Perhaps he did; perhaps he didn’t. Either way, I do not know for certain whether he did. As such, the evidence available to me does not demonstrate that Argentina’s president is a religious fanatic who is seeking to instigate a holy war against Islam and Islamic holy sites. Therefore, it ought not to be treated as such.

That is what I think.

I am aware that this is just one person’s opinion. I am also aware that it is not the opinion of a religious scholar; rather, it is merely the thoughts of one religious woman – of a single individual who does not, cannot and will not pretend to have significant influence over public perceptions.

Nevertheless, I am putting these thoughts out there as a reminder that sound bites don’t tell the whole story – and since they don’t, there are reasons to look deeper rather than jumping immediately to a conclusion.