Ritchie Torres is a voice of sanity, but will the Left hear his message?
While the traditional Israel advocate in Congress is white, conservative, and older, Representative Ritchie Torres (D–NY) checks none of those boxes. He is a bona fide progressive from the Bronx, the son of a Puerto Rican father and black mother, and at 33 is one of Congress’s youngest members.
Last year, Torres won the seat being vacated by the retiring Jose Serrano, who had held it since 1990. It is one of the bluest districts in the nation, having been held by a Democrat almost continuously since 1927.
Torres made headlines last month when, during the Gaza conflict, he gave a passionate defense of Israel on the floor of Congress. Clips of his speeches went viral, and he engaged in a brief Twitter spat with Representative Jamaal Bowman, a fellow freshman Democrat from Yonkers, over the right of Israel to fight back against Hamas.
Torres acknowledges he is being attacked by members of his party for his views, saying that supporting Israel is “not for the faint-hearted,” but he is determined to show that loving Israel is not a partisan issue.
Do the new Democratic members of Congress tend to support Israel?
Views on Israel vary widely. I am particularly vocal and visible in my advocacy for Israel — for me, Israel is a progressive oasis in the Middle East, it is an oasis of a multiracial democracy. The portrayal of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as black-versus-white is deeply misleading and intellectually dishonest because it ignores the reality of Israel as a multiracial democracy.
To me, there is no country in the region that is more protective of women’s rights, of minority rights, than the State of Israel. So support for Israel should be the natural progressive position.
And you say this representing a district with hardly any Jews living in it.
Right. It is primarily Latino and African American.
Do your constituents recognize that Israel is a progressive democracy?
To be honest, my district is the most Democratic district in America. I represent people who are struggling to pay the rent, to put food on the table, or are struggling for survival. My constituents are largely focused on bread-and-butter concerns — jobs, schools, health and safety.
What I will tell you is that my constituents expect the government to keep them safe. If we in the United States were to ever get 4,000 rockets, my constituents would expect the government to defend them. And the people of Israel have a right to expect their government to defend them.
Did you consider yourself a regular progressive on domestic issues?
Yes. I identify as a pragmatic progressive Democrat.
Did you ever consider joining the Squad, with AOC, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib?
No, I never thought of joining the Squad. We have seminal differences of opinion, and Israel is one of them. And I prefer to be independent. I prefer to be my own person and govern with integrity and independence. I do what I think is right and responsible, even if it means standing alone.
What was the main thrust of the two speeches you gave in Israel’s defense during the recent conflict?
In the first speech, I spoke passionately about Israel’s right to defend itself. Israel is a sovereign state, and with statehood and sovereignty comes the right of self-defense. Israel has the right to defend itself in the face of rocket fire from Hamas. Why should Israel be held to a double standard? Why should Israel be the exception to the rule of self defense? That is a burden we would impose on no other country in the world. It is unreasonable to expect Israel to be a passive target of thousands of rockets, and then forfeit the right of self-defense.
My second speech came in response to a member of the state legislature posting an image of a map in which Israel was nowhere to be found. I was appalled by the blatant anti-Semitism of the image. The disappearance of Israel was not an accident; wiping Israel off the map is the objective of the BDS movement, and that to me is not an expression of peace, that is an expression of hatred.
There is a difference between inciting hatred and promoting peace. And most of the ideas and words amplified on Twitter are aimed at inciting hatred toward Israel rather than promoting peace between Israelis and Palestinians. The incitement of hatred on Twitter has led to violence in the real world. There has been a global wave of anti-Semitic violence and vandalism and vitriol.
Assemblywoman Phara Souffrant Forrest, who posted that map, later deleted it. She said people misunderstood her post.
We all saw that image, and Israel was wiped off the map. There were flowers on the map as though peace meant the destruction of Israel. It was a blatantly anti-Semitic image.
The way she explained it was that the map didn’t advocate the destruction of Israel but just symbolized support for Palestinian independence.
No, I disagree. The phrase, “free Palestine from the river to the sea,” is not a call for Palestinian statehood, it is a call for the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state.
Did you get any pushback from colleagues in Congress? Did any members come over to you to confront you personally?
I never share confidential conversations that I have with colleagues.
Do you see pro-BDS legislation passing in Congress?
No. The United States Congress remains overwhelmingly pro-Israel. My concern is not the present, my concern is the future. The huge question mark is to what extent Congress will remain pro-Israel five or ten or fifteen years from now. My concerns are oriented toward the future. But presently? Congress is overwhelmingly pro-Israel and anti-BDS.
What is your reaction when people say that the Republican Party is pro-Israel but the Democratic Party is less so?
It ignores the advocacy of people like me, people who are taking a risk to stand up for what is right. Support for Israel or support for the America-Israel relationship is built on a bedrock of bipartisanship. We have to ensure that support of Israel remains bipartisan, and that the issue of Israel itself transcends partisanship. So those who politicize Israel in partisan terms are doing a disservice to the cause.
If President Biden were to propose a revised Iran deal, what would you be looking to see in it?
Look, I have real concerns about Iran. It is the leading state sponsor of terror in the world. Wherever there is a conflict in the Middle East, you have the fingerprints of the Iranian regime, the Revolutionary Guard, all over it. My concern is that if the United States were to lift the sanctions, it would free up tens of billions of dollars — and where would those dollars go? Is Iran going to invest those dollars in its infrastructure and its people? Or is Iran more likely to invest those dollars in terrorism that comes at the expense of our allies, particularly Israel and the Sunni Arab world?
My view is that the United States should not be in the business of subsidizing terrorism against our greatest ally in the Middle East.
In other words, you would be pressuring the Biden administration, if they formulate this deal, to take these concerns into account, and not just Iran’s nuclear capabilities.
Yes. It is not just about the nuclear program. It’s about violations of human rights, state sponsorship of terrorism, regional aggression, aggression on cyberspace, a proxy war that Iran wages against Israel — all of the above need to be taken to account. The right agreement has to be comprehensive.
Well, this was the main argument against Obama’s deal, that it was solely focused on the nuclear aspect.
Also, we need a permanent agreement, not just a temporary one.
How are you adjusting to life in Congress? Is it in any way the same as the City Council?
Oh, much more demanding. It is the most demanding thing I’ve ever done in my life, but I feel like the most grateful person on earth. Every time I step foot on the House floor, I cannot help pinching myself. My life has been a journey from poverty in the Bronx to the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C., and I am enormously grateful to be a congressman in the greatest country on earth.
You are 33 years old, so growing up in poverty was not that long ago.
I was born and bred in the Bronx. I spent most of my life in poverty. I was raised by a single mother with three children on a minimum wage — which in the 1990s was $4.25 an hour. I grew up in public housing, with living conditions of mold and mildew and leaks and lead, without reliable heat in the winter.
I got my start in politics as a housing organizer in order to improve living conditions in public housing. And then at age 24, I decided to take a leap of faith and run for Congress. I had no deep pockets, I had no ties to the dynasties of Bronx politics or to the party establishment. But I was young and energetic, and I spent a year knocking on doors. In 2014 I became the youngest elected official in the city of New York when I got elected to the council.
Were you ever in Israel?
As a council member, I went to Israel on two occasions, once in 2015 and subsequently in 2018. That is when I became a pro-Israel progressive Democrat. And in 2020, when I ran for Congress, I ran on a platform of pro-Israel progressivism. I made it clear that I would never accept the endorsement of any organization that embraces BDS. As a result, the DSA — the Democratic Socialists of America — waged a vicious campaign against me. Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez endorsed my opponent.
I won because I had the deepest roots in the Bronx and the biggest connection to the voters.
So are reports of the DSA’s power and influence in New York City overrated?
Yes and no. In the 2020 election cycle, the DSA essentially won every race that they competed in except for mine. So the DSA is not to be underestimated.
They only competed in about six or seven races.
True. But you see that DSA candidates are expanding into areas that I would call outside their strongholds.
What should Israel advocates do, in your opinion, to ensure that support for Israel remains strong in the long term?
Engage in politics. It matters who is in elected office — support the right people for elected office. I am setting a model of pro-Israel progressivism, and I would encourage the pro-Israel community to support candidates for public office who have the same worldview that I do. I need more people who are cast in my mold. I need more people who are both pro-Israel and progressive.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 866)
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