Wednesday, Jul 17, 2024

Interview With Rep. Ritchie Torres: Israel’s Fiercest Defender in Congress

Of Israel’s biggest defenders on the Hill — typically white, conservative, and older — one stands out for checking none of those boxes. Rep. Ritchie Torres, a bona fide progressive from the Bronx, has been one of the fiercest advocates for the Jewish state ever since he entered Congress in 2021.

Torres, 35, has few Jewish constituents. The son of a Puerto Rican father and black mother, he hadn’t even dwelled on the subject until a decade ago. Now, though, he has it in his kishkes, he told the Yated. And he’s been tackling the world for Israel, particularly in the last three weeks since the Hamas pogrom in southern Israel.

AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee which is Israel’s primary lobby in Washington, told me that Torres, despite representing a district that is primarily black and Hispanic, is a crucial ally of Israel.

“Congressman Torres,” Marshall Wittmann, AIPAC’s spokesman, said in an email, “is a stalwart, pro-Israel champion who deeply appreciates the importance of America’s alliance with the Jewish state.”

Torres’s district is the bluest in America, having last elected a Republican 100 years ago.

Raised in the Bronx by a single mother with three children on a minimum wage, Torres grew up in public housing, with its associated conditions of leaks, lead, and unreliable heat in the winter. He was elected to the city council in 2014 as its youngest member, and his subsequent two visits to Israel convinced him to become what he calls a “pro-Israel progressive Democrat.”

During his 2020 race for Congress, he made it clear that he would never accept the endorsement of any organization that pushes to boycott and divest from Israel. That led to an ugly primary, during which Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, both proud socialists, campaigned for his opponent.

Leaving his official X, formerly Twitter, account with its 37,000 followers to tout his progressive accomplishments on healthcare and the environment, Torres robustly pumps his thumbs on his private account, with 168,000 followers, to go after his progressive allies who call for a ceasefire in Gaza and liberal colleges who allow pro-Palestinian rallies on their campuses.

“The only constant among ceasefires between Israel and Hamas,” posted on Monday afternoon, “is that Hamas has broken every single one of them. … Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me for 16 years, shame on us.”

Politico described him as “perhaps the most vocal opponent of DSA,” the Democratic Socialists of America, who held a pro-Hamas rally in Times Square during the massacre on October 7. The DSA has targeted him back, holding a rally this past weekend in what they thought was Torres’ district, though it turned out to be in the neighboring district of Jamaal Bowman — who, ironically, is from the progressives whom Torres battles.

Torres’ race was ultimately the only one in which the DSA-endorsed candidate lost.

 

It’s a scary time to be a Jew in America today. I don’t recall a time like this, when there are so many things coming at you. Even here in New York City, the level of protests and Nazi imagery, and the fact that the police don’t seem to be cracking down on it is scary.

 

I have real concerns about the safety of Jewish students on college campuses. Where there’s fear, there can never be freedom. And there’s an atmosphere of fear on college campuses, inhibiting the freedom of Jewish students.

Imagine what it must be like to be a Jewish student at Cornell University, where a professor said that he was “exhilarated” and “energized” by the murder of Jews.

Imagine what it must be like to be a Jewish student at Cooper Union, where students had to lock themselves in a library in order to escape what felt like a violent mob.

Imagine what it must be like to be a Jewish student at NYU, and you go to Washington Square Park, where a student is holding up a sign that reads, “Keep the world clean of Jews.” The notion that the world should be cleansed of Jews is the kind of genocidal antisemitism that one would expect from Nazi Germany, not from New York City. And so, there’s real cause for concern here.

I held a rally with Jewish students and parents, calling on the federal government to hold these colleges and universities accountable. These colleges and universities need to start combating antisemitism within their ranks.

 

Does the federal government have any leverage over these colleges and universities?

 

The federal government has immense leverage, because nearly every college and university receives federal funding. As a condition of receiving federal funding, colleges and universities are required to comply with civil rights law, which prohibits discrimination against Jewish students.

If a college and a university are creating a hostile environment for their Jewish students, those colleges and universities are acting in violation of Title VI of civil rights law.

 

Has there been any sort of petition to the federal agency that oversees colleges to take action over here?

 

I am advocating for rigorous civil rights enforcement to ensure the safety of Jewish students on college campuses. We need more pressure.

 

Pro-Palestinian activism has always been done at colleges. There have been protests and rallies across the country and across the world. But the feeling of most Jews is that a pro-Palestinian rally right now is a rally in support of Hamas’ butchery and the massacre that occurred three weeks ago. It’s no different than having a rally for Nazi Germany in 1943.

 

Well, I refuse to call Hamas “pro-Palestinian.” The greatest oppressor of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip is Hamas.

And if you are uttering words, “from the river to the sea,” or “end 75 years of occupation,” or “globalize the intifada,” you’re not pro-Palestinian, you’re simply anti-Israel. You’re not calling for the creation of a Palestinian state, you’re calling for the destruction of the Jewish state.

“Globalize the intifada” is an open invitation to violence. As you know, the intifada refers to a wave of terror attacks against Jews in Israel. And so those who are uttering the words “globalize the intifada” are calling for violence against Jews across the world. That’s not pro-Palestinian, that’s simply anti-Israel, it’s anti-human, it’s anti-Jewish.

 

Some of your colleagues are calling for that, whether it’s calling for Israel not to destroy the terror organization that perpetrated the attacks or calling for a ceasefire, which is essentially defending the massacre that occurred. Some of your colleagues are calling for that. Are they aware of the context of that?

 

Those calling for a ceasefire are playing into the hands of Hamas. No one expected the United States to enter into a ceasefire with the Empire of Japan when 2,400 Americans were murdered at Pearl Harbor. No one expected the United States to enter into a ceasefire with Al-Qaeda and the Taliban when 3,000 Americans were murdered on 9/11.

Why should Israel be treated any differently than any other country? Israel has a right to defend itself, which is the right of every sovereign state, every sovereign nation’s democracy.

There were members of Congress who introduced a resolution calling for a ceasefire without calling for the release of the hostages. And I find that shameful and despicable.

 

Who was the lead sponsor of that?

 

Cori Bush and Ilhan Omar.

 

Oh, makes sense.

Do you feel that the Biden administration’s reaction to this was appropriate? Is it too cautious? Is it too aggressive?

 

I thought that President Biden has been unequivocally supportive of Israel. And he’s the first president to go to Israel in a time of war. He has sent two massive aircraft carriers, the Eisenhower and the Ford, to Israel, to the Mediterranean. What we’ve seen from President Biden has been a powerful demonstration of support for Israel.

 

Historically, when there’s been this type of oppression of Jews overseas, Congress has taken the lead. You have, for example, probably the greatest legislation in support of Jews overseas — the Jackson-Vanik Amendment that basically forced Russia to ease up on how it treats its Jews by tying it to free trade negotiations. Does Congress have anything that they could do now? Take a look at what happened in the Russian province of Dagestan on Sunday, when people ran around the airport looking for Jews since they wanted to perpetrate a pogrom. And I saw this New York Times report that China is dialing up antisemitism in the state-controlled media. Does Congress have any leverage over here?

 

I think for Congress, nothing would do more to protect the global Jewish community than to support Israel, to provide Israel with the funding that it needs to defend itself, and to provide Israel with the replenishment of Iron Dome [interception missiles]. But we should also seriously consider sanctions on countries that are promoting violence against Jews. That is something that Congress should pursue.

 

You’re talking about sanctions or removing free trade agreements?

 

If there’s a state that’s sponsoring a pogrom against Jews, that’s not something that can go unpunished. That’s something for which there needs to be consequences.

 

Well, all lines point back over here to Iran. Does America still have any leverage with Iran? Did we basically sanction them out of any more leverage over them?

 

Look, I am in favor of sanctioning Iran. I see Iran as the root of all evil in the Middle East.

Wherever you have a failed state in the Middle East, whether it’s Yemen or Syria or Lebanon or Iraq or Gaza, you see the tentacles of Iran. So it is in the interest of the United States to do whatever we can to hold Iran accountable.

 

If I could ask you a personal question, in the past couple of years, you have emerged as one of Israel’s fiercest defenders in Congress. How did you get to this? Do you have anything in your background? Did you care about Israel before you came to Congress?

 

I have it in my kishkes. I’ve been traveling to Israel for about a decade. I’ve been thinking about the subject of Israel for about a decade. It’s become a central part of my life.

But, look, what ultimately drives me to be pro-Israel is human decency. As a student of history, I understand the need for a Jewish state to be a sanctuary for the Jewish people. And I proudly identify as a Zionist. I’m going to remain a defender of Israel for as long as I remain in Congress and beyond.

 

You’ve been very strong on social media, but you did get some pushback. You had the DSA rally this week — in your neighbor’s district for some reason. And I also see on Twitter, the DSA is able to rally up a lot of accounts, whether real or fake, attacking you. Does that deter you? Do you think twice about defending Israel because of that?

 

I would rather lose an election than lose my freedom.

And I would tell people, judge me by my enemies. And I am Public Enemy Number One of the DSA. I see it as a badge of honor, because the DSA is one of the most antisemitic forces in New York City politics. And I’m intent on defeating the DSA and what it represents.

 

Just a few months ago, the DSA was on the ascendance. More candidates were signing on to their proclamations and filling out their questionnaires in order to get their endorsement. Do you think that their reaction to the massacre that happened now has opened people’s eyes and now people will be hesitant to associate themselves with them?

 

After October 7th, the DSA held a rally glorifying the terrorism and Hamas and calling for Israel’s destruction in the wake of Israel’s deadliest terrorist attack. I’m convinced that the DSA has made itself radioactive in New York City politics. And anyone who associates with the DSA does so at their own peril.

 

Going back to New York City, Jewish people feel fear. Forget about colleges, just walking in the streets has people looking over their shoulders. Have you brought this up with the Adams administration, with Mayor Adams? There’s been an increased police presence, but it’s still not enough.

 

The city of New York has to make every effort to ensure the safety of the Jewish community. It’s important that the Jewish community not only be safe but feel safe. The feeling of safety matters just as much as the reality of safety. We have to make it crystal clear that antisemitism has no place in New York. And so I’m in favor of boosting a police presence to boost the sense of safety in the Jewish community.

We have to be aggressive in combating antisemitism. New York must remain a sanctuary for the Jewish community.

 

Talking about a sanctuary, are you concerned that pro-Hamas elements could be coming in through our southern borders, and a lot of them make their way to New York City? I heard that recently, tens of thousands of Muslims from Central Asia have been found coming across the border.

 

There’s no evidence that that’s true, so I want to operate on facts. We have to be careful not to discriminate against anyone. What we seek is not vengeance against Palestinians or Muslims. What we seek is justice against Hamas.

 

But there’s no vetting of these migrants who come in. Shouldn’t that be a number one requirement?

 

None of the migrants that I’ve seen are coming from the Gaza Strip. The migrants are coming from Venezuela, from Central America, and South America. None of them are coming from the Gaza Strip.

 

On a personal level, different people I’ve spoken to say they feel comforted that someone such as yourself, who is outside our community, is speaking out so strongly for us. We’ve been alone so many times in history, it’s good not to be alone this time.

 

You’re not alone, sir. We’re going to win this round. We’re on the right side of history.

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