newsU.S.-Israel Relations

Once a ‘blank slate,’ Ritchie Torres is one of Israel’s best fighters in Congress

Visiting Israel in 2014 was “one of the most formative and transformative experiences” in the N.Y. Democrat’s life, he told JNS.

Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.). Photo: Courtesy.
Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.). Photo: Courtesy.

Growing up in the Bronx, N.Y., Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.) had no awareness about the Jewish community or Israel. “I was born and raised in a community that was almost exclusively Latino and African-American,” Torres, an Afro-Latino, told JNS.

When he was first elected to the New York City Council in 2014, he was “a blank slate on this subject,” he said. Then he accepted an invitation later that year to join a Jewish Community Relations Council delegation to Israel. The trip turned out to be “one of the most formative and transformative experiences in my life,” he said.

Torres, 35, spoke with JNS on Friday at the beginning of Black History Month about Israel’s war against the Hamas terror organization in Gaza, the prospects of a future Palestinian state and how he became one of Israel’s best fighters on Capitol Hill, particularly after Oct. 7.

‘No equivalent’

When Torres first entered the Gaza envelope, he recalls a local Israeli mayor telling him that most of the children in the area struggle with post-traumatic stress from living under relentless rocket fire.

“I grew up in the Bronx where people live in fear of bullets, gun violence, but no one in the United States lives in fear of rockets,” he told JNS. “No one worries that Mexico and Canada are going to fire a rocket into American homes and communities.”

Early on, Torres realized that the Jewish state faces “a level of insecurity and volatility that has no equivalent in the American experience.”

“I developed profound empathy not only for the plight of the Jewish people but for the complex security situation confronting Israel as a Jewish state, which is surrounded by adversaries,” he added.

Torres told JNS that most of his views on Israel are informed by his trips to the area, as well as by the writings of experts, including former Knesset member Einat Wilf, Israeli journalist Haviv Rettig Gur and Tal Becker, who helped argue Israel’s case before the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

Two kinds of ceasefire

While a growing number of Democrats in Congress are calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, Torres told JNS that lawmakers aren’t trying to persuade one another on the issue.

“There are no real conversations,” he said. “Everyone has their minds made up.”

He told JNS that there are two kinds of ceasefire—one that keeps Hamas in power and the hostages in captivity, and the other after Hamas surrenders unconditionally and releases the hostages.

“I find it outrageous that most of the international community is calling for the former rather than the latter,” he said.

Torres has written in recent days that the international community “has blood on its hands” for its role in helping Hamas govern the Gaza Strip. He elaborated on that charge to JNS, calling the current system “utter insanity.”

“Hamas is a terrorist organization that has no interest in governance. It sees governing as a distraction,” he said. “Hamas does not exist to govern Palestinians. It exists to murder Jews in Israel.”

Hamas has essentially told the world, “We, Hamas, are going to murder Jews, and we expect the rest of the world to govern the Palestinians for us,” he said. “The rest of the world said yes.”

“It’s utterly insane that we, the international community, are subsidizing a social contract, whose terms and conditions have been set by a genocidal terror organization,” he added.

Ritchie Torres
Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.) at a press conference outside of Bellevue Hospital in New York City on Jan. 9, 2022. Credit: Lev Radin/Shutterstock.

Two-state solution

Torres has been steadfast in supporting Israel’s campaign against Hamas. He also believes that a two-state solution is the eventual path to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

That has been the standard position for many American supporters of Israel for decades, but the viability and desirability of a future Palestinian state has come into question for many Israelis after Oct. 7.

Last month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed to rule out a future Palestinian state. “Israel must have security control over all the territory west of the Jordan,” he said.

Torres wrote on social media that ruling out a Palestinian state entirely was “morally wrong.” He told JNS that history shows that even the bitterest enemies can reconcile.

“I’m under no illusion that it will happen in the short term, especially in the wake of Oct. 7,” he told JNS. “But Germany went from nearly exterminating the Jewish people to becoming one of the strongest supporters of the Jewish state. The United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, and Japan has emerged as one of the strongest allies of the United States.”

History demonstrates that peace is possible, though it can take a long time. “The facts on the ground can and do change over time,” he said. “The notion that there will never be peace strikes me as ahistorical.”

But Torres was also critical of the Biden administration over reports that the State Department is reviewing options for the United States to unilaterally recognize a Palestinian state soon after the Gaza war concludes.

Torres believes that the Palestinians need to meet preconditions for statehood, including renouncing the so-called “right of return” and coming to an agreement with Israel on borders, before Washington should consider recognizing a Palestinian state.

“We in the United States have to disabuse ourselves of the notion that we can legislate or enact a two-state solution from the ivory tower of the United States Congress or the White House,” he said.

“A two-state solution can only be achieved by Israelis and Palestinians,” he added. “It cannot be issued by executive order.”

Race and antisemitism

After Oct. 7, many U.S. Jews have expressed concern about what they see as declining support for Israel among blacks and other minority groups, and even a tolerance for antisemitism.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) expressed that fear powerfully in a Nov. 29 speech on the Senate floor about Jew-hatred which ran more than 40 minutes. The groups that held rallies to celebrate the Oct. 7 attacks came from within the same liberal ideological spaces that most American Jews support, he noted.

“Not long ago, many of us marched together for black and brown lives. We stood against anti-Asian hatred. We protested bigotry against the LGBTQ community. We fought for reproductive justice out of the recognition that injustice against one oppressed group is injustice against all,” Schumer said at the time.”But apparently, in the eyes of some, that principle does not extend to the Jewish people.”

Torres thinks the idea that those attitudes correlate with race is a misconception.

“I think there’s a perception in the Jewish community that African-Americans are particularly antisemitic, and I’m convinced that that perception is wrong,” he told JNS. “The greatest predictor of one’s attitudes toward Israel is not race. It is age and educational attainment.”

“Young people are increasingly hostile toward Israel regardless of race,” he added.

Organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America have very few black and Latino members, according to Torres. “It’s an overwhelmingly white organization,” he said.

In his native New York City, it is difficult to generalize about the state of relations between black and Jewish communities, Torres said. But it is clear to him that there is a lot of de facto segregation.

“New York City, with all of its diversity, is deeply segregated by race and class,” he said. “There are many blacks who go through life without interacting with many Jews, and there are many Jews who go through life without interacting with many blacks.”

Segregation breeds a lack of mutual understanding, he believes.

“I would support initiatives that would break down those barriers of distance and segregation and bring blacks and Jews together in the tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel,” he said.

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