BUENOS AIRES (JR) — Newly-elected Argentine President Javier Milei spoke on Thursday at the opening ceremony of the Pan American Maccabi Games, an international tournament for Jewish athletes.
Over 10,000 people attended the two-hour event at Movistar Arena in Buenos Aires, located in the city’s Villa Crespo neighborhood, which is traditionally associated with the local Jewish community.
A handful of countries from outside of North and South America sent athlete delegations, including Australia, Great Britain, France and Zimbabwe. Israel’s delegation — pared down in size due to the aftermath of the Oct. 7 attacks — received a special welcome.
“I want a warm greeting to all the Jewish people and in particular to those who have family or loved ones near the front lines,” said Milei, referencing the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza. His comments drew multiple standing ovations. “I accompany you in this difficult moment and I want to ratify at this moment my unalterable commitment to the state of Israel and to the Jewish people in their fight against Islamic terrorism, for peace and freedom.”
He also referenced the Hanukkah story, as he did in his inauguration speech, and added some words in Hebrew.
“Many times I have said that I did not come to guide lambs, but to awaken lions. I see in the Maccabean Games this spirit of excellence and courage,” he said. “Because of that, I say to the athletes ‘Chazak ve’ematz’ [‘be strong and courageous’].”
The ceremony included a somber prayer in memory of those killed on Oct. 7, led by Romina Schvalb from Kibbutz Nir Oz. Her brother-in-law, Ruben Engel, was killed in the Hamas attacks.
Other prominent attendees included Argentine Vice President Victoria Villaruel; the U.S. and Israeli ambassadors to Argentina, Marc Stanley and Eyal Sela; and the mayor of Buenos Aires, Jorge Macri.
“I have a lot of experience in Maccabi games, but this time was special. The entry of the Israeli delegation was… our heart exploded,” said Riki Kanterevicz, Maccabi World Union’s vice chairman and the chairman of Israel’s delegation, in a TV interview. “I want to thank the community that was in the stadium for this warm reception.”
Milei, a right-wing former economist who has already begun enacting sweeping changes to the country’s financial system, is not Jewish — but he has a passionate interest in Judaism. He has talked about studying with a rabbi and potentially converting to the religion. For his first trip abroad since being elected last month, he visited the tomb of the Lubavitcher rebbe in New York.
The Pan American games started in 1950 and occur every four years. Argentina was also host in 1995 and 2007.
In 2022, Joe Biden became the first U.S. president to make an appearance at a Maccabi tournament, at the flagship Maccabiah Games in Israel.
Many of the games in the current tournament can be viewed via this YouTube channel.