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The Advocate

Ritchie Torres vs. the Left

Why the New York Democrat chose Israel over his progressive colleagues

Ritchie Torres visiting Israel with a delegation from the Bronx in April.
Ritchie Torres visited Israel with a delegation from the Bronx in April.

Congressman Ritchie Torres loves Israel. The Bronx Democrat, whom Politico described as Israel’s “loudest supporter” in the House of Representatives, has visited the country regularly since 2015. He says pro-Israel advocacy is a major part of his life.

Torres’s vocal backing of Israel long predates Hamas’s October 7 attack. “Congressman Torres has been a pro-Israel stalwart for nearly a decade,” his office said in a statement to The New Republic. The progressive magazine Jewish Currents dubbed him “the future of pro-Israel politics” back in 2021; a year later, the British outlet Jewish Chronicle introduced him as “the woke Democrat who is an outspoken supporter of Israel.” In 2020, he and Mondaire Jones became the first openly gay Black men elected to Congress. Since October 7, he has argued with his fellow Democrats who have called for a cease-fire; he even left the Congressional Progressive Caucus, a move some speculated was over its criticism of Israel.

Although Torres is not Jewish, his vocal support for Israel makes sense in some ways. New York City has the largest Jewish population outside of Israel; he’s built strong ties with the Jewish community since entering local elected office a decade ago; and, like many politicians in both parties, he counts pro-Israel organizations as major donors.

But Torres’s support stands out. At 36, he is one of the youngest representatives in Congress and is vocally pro-Israel at a period when many young people are questioning America’s staunch support for the country. Torres has found himself sparring with American Jews who are critical of Israel’s ongoing military campaign in Gaza, which has claimed tens of thousands of civilian lives.

Torres frequently invokes what Israel means to Jews, and he has repeatedly engaged in arguments about religious identity, Zionism, and who gets to credibly speak to both. In these exchanges, Torres assumes a posture of authority—not only on Israel, but on what it means to Jews—that is surprising to encounter in someone who isn’t Jewish.

All of this goes over just fine with many of the most prominent American Jews—a number of whom have embraced him in recent months. But it has left others confused and frustrated. For Jews, it can be irksome, after all, to be told by someone who is not Jewish how to feel about Israel. Torres’s posture raises the question of who gets to speak to the relationship between Israel and American Jews—and what the answer means for American Jewish politics in the wake of October 7.

Torres’s combative approach toward Israel’s critics is most often seen on social media. In October, Abby Chava Stein, the author of Becoming Eve: My Journey From Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi to Transgender Woman and a member of the progressive anti-racist organization Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, wrote an op-ed in the New York Daily News accusing several New York City politicians, including Torres, of smearing critics of Israel’s destructive retaliatory campaign in an effort to score political points. For Stein, the most humane response to Hamas’s October 7 attacks was calling for the protection of all innocent life. “True safety for the Jewish community is bound up with safety and dignity for all peoples.”

Torres responded by tearing into Stein on X: “A fringe figure wrote an Op-Ed attacking me for affirming Israel’s right to defend itself in the wake of the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust. She is part of an Anti-Israel organization, named Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (do not be fooled by names), that described Hamas’ terrorist attack as not ‘unprovoked.’” (Full disclosure: In 2022, I made a donation to JFREJ’s winter cultural fundraiser.)

Sophie Ellman-Golan, the organization’s director of strategic communications, cast Torres’s actions in fairly cynical terms. Torres used to work with JFREJ. In 2017, the group collaborated with him on police accountability legislation, only to see Torres, then a City Council member, move forward with a bill that Ellman-Golan said was significantly watered down.

Recently, Ellman-Golan told The New Republic she believed Torres had decided that tightly embracing Israel was politically advantageous. Still, she said, it was “wild how he’s continued to escalate his attacks on left-wing Jews.”

“In 2017, Ritchie Torres was rallying with us,” she said. “At some point, he decided that was not what he wanted to do anymore. Apparently, we were Jewish enough for him to organize with when it was beneficial to him,” she added, “and now we’re not.”

Asked about Torres’s response to criticism from left-wing Jewish groups, his office argued in a statement that he was right to attack “fringe” voices. Citing statistics from a 2021 Pew Research Center survey that eight in 10 Jews say Israel is an “essential or important” part of their Jewishness, his office also asserted that Torres was right to attack Jewish critics of Israel.

“There is nothing wrong with pointing out that anti-Zionists fall outside the political mainstream of the Jewish community, just like there would be nothing wrong with pointing out that Black Republicans fall outside the political mainstream of the Black community,” Torres’s office said.

Some might ask, though, where precisely the “Jewish fringe” referred to begins and ends—or, for that matter, where precisely it ends and the mainstream begins. After all, per the Pew Research Center, only 26 percent of American Jews are or lean Republican. Is it thus acceptable to call the Republican Jewish Coalition fringe? More to the point: Is it appropriate for a politician who does not hold an identity to make declarations about the boundaries of that identity, asserting who is on the periphery and who is in the core?

Torres does have the support of many Jewish organizations, both inside and outside his district. Torres’s office sent over laudatory quotes from seven Jewish leaders. Rabbi Binyamin Krauss, a principal at SAR Academy, a Modern Orthodox day school in the Bronx, praised Torres as someone who “speaks his mind even when it is unpopular, and he does not back down when intimidated and threatened, as he has often been.” Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, said Torres “has consistently demonstrated his moral authority and genuine allyship at a time when Jews have felt abandoned.” Torres’s office also sent statements from representatives of the American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, and the Zioness Movement.

As public opinion has shifted on Gaza—particularly among Democrats—Torres has become a valuable ally to pro-Israel Democrats and groups that are anxious about growing calls for a cease-fire. But his stance on Israel has also brought him into conflict with a decidedly mainstream figure in American Jewish politics: Jeremy Ben-Ami, founder and president of J Street, a “pro-Israel, pro-peace group” whose conference brings out Democratic leaders.

Last November, Representative Jamaal Bowman, a fellow New York Democrat, told MSNBC that, on a 2021 trip to the West Bank sponsored by J Street, there had been checkpoints he couldn’t pass because he is not Jewish.

Torres was disbelieving. “Jewish checkpoints are as fictional as Jewish space lasers,” he tweeted. Ben-Ami soon weighed in, offering that he led the trip, and that it was “a fact: There are checkpoints in Hebron where security separates who can walk where by religion. Other checkpoints keep roads ‘sterile’ of Palestinians. I’ve been there dozens of times. Join me.”

In a since-deleted response, Torres then implied that the goal of Ben-Ami’s trip was to “incite hatred” toward Israel. “How dare you accuse me of inciting hatred for Israel,” Ben-Ami replied. “My great grandparents founded Petah Tikva; my grandparents Tel Aviv. My father and father in law fought to create the state. I lost friends Oct 7; my family is called up.”

“The Congressman lost his temper in an online exchange with J Street President Jeremy Ben Ami, and, in a moment of rashness, made comments that he has come to regret,” Torres’s office said in a statement.

Ben-Ami said the two spoke by phone after the exchange. “When we talked, his views were much more nuanced,” he said.

A month later, Torres once again faced criticism, this time for describing the story of Hanukkah as one “of Jewish self-defense in the face of an existential threat.” Israel, Torres continued, is “the national embodiment of the Maccabean tradition of Jewish self-defense.”

“We’re just gonna act like it’s totally fine and not at all weird that a non-Jewish congressman is determining the meaning of a Jewish holiday and using that to further a political agenda that countless Jews are vocally opposing?” responded Yonah Lieberman, a self-described movement builder on the Jewish left. Asked for a response, Torres’s office said it had run the statement by several Jewish leaders in his district: “No one to whom he spoke disagreed with what he wrote, and many were moved by it.”

Torres has repeatedly spoken about antisemitism since October 7.

In May, Torres introduced a bill that would empower the Department of Education to establish a “third-party antisemitism monitor” for higher education institutions receiving federal funding, which the institutions could lose if they refused to comply.

Among the hotly debated issues are how antisemitism should be defined and the extent to which criticism of Israel is antisemitic. The position of some mainstream Jewish organizations is that criticism of Israel—for example, saying it is carrying out a genocide in Gaza—is inherently antisemitic; other groups strongly disagree.

“The idea that we should have monitors—what is this, George Orwell’s 1984?” asked Ben-Ami, who said such a concept was antithetical to the idea of higher education. Of universities, Ben-Ami went on, “you shouldn’t be unsafe … but speech and protest that make you uncomfortable? That’s what your time in university’s for.”

The majority of American Jews, Ben-Ami stressed, were comfortable with the idea that criticizing Israeli policies isn’t anti-Israel, let alone antisemitic. “We’ve tested this over and over again.” Ben-Ami said he was worried that, in the current political climate, many politicians are treating antisemitism like a political football. Many of Torres’s critics agree—and think that it’s unacceptable for someone who is not Jewish to weigh in, publicly and repeatedly, about Jewish identity and politics.

A March Gallup poll found that three-quarters of Democrats now disapprove of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza—up 12 points from November. This shift in public opinion arguably only makes Torres a more valuable ally to pro-Israel Jewish groups: A Democrat willing to attack his colleagues and left-wing Jewish groups at a time when many are worried about losing support for Israel. It also points to a growing divide in Jewish organizations, with pro-Israel organizations evidently increasingly comfortable with politicians, regardless of background, speaking on questions of identity and antisemitism—provided they are staunch defenders of the state of Israel.

There are many who are grateful that Torres, as a Democrat who is not Jewish, is advocating for Israel.

And for those who do feel that way, Torres’s star shines ever brighter. The congressman was the distinguished guest speaker at the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History’s gala in June.