Rep. Ritchie Torres speaks at a press conference endorsing New York City Mayoral candidate Andrew Yang. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Can You Be a Progressive and Support Israel?

A Conversation with Bronx Democrat Ritchie Torres.

Ritchie Torres is a freshman congressman representing New York’s 15th district. He grew up in a public housing project in the Bronx, brought up by a single mother who raised him, his sister, and his twin brother on minimum wage. Upon his swearing-in, Ritchie became the first openly gay Afro-Latin American member of Congress. He is a staunch progressive, and has been vocal about improving public housing, advocating for LGBT businesses, and addressing child poverty. 

He is also an outspoken supporter of Israel, a position that 10 years ago wouldn’t have been notable, but in today’s progressive wing of the Democratic Party has made him a curiosity — sort of like a Trumper who doesn’t want a recount. 

Rep. Torres’s position on Israel has made him a target on social media, where he has been smeared as a supporter of ethnic cleansing and genocide. It has also opened him up to criticism from his colleagues.

To me, he looks a bit like a single man standing alone against a cultural tsunami. Does he feel that way? I called Rep. Torres yesterday to find out. 

Our interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

BW: Last week you said: “I am here to affirm, as a member of Congress — one who intends to be here for a long time — that I have an unwavering commitment to both the sovereignty and security of Israel as a Jewish state.” That kind of statement used to be par for the course for Democratic politicians. That no longer seems to me to be the case. What happened?

RT: It feels like we are living through a tectonic shift. We’re increasingly living in a world where support for Israel as a Jewish state, support for the American Israeli relationship, support even for a two state solution, is becoming heresy. And BDS is in danger of becoming orthodoxy, particularly within progressive circles. 

BW: Why has that view become heretical? How did we get to this point?

RT: Not only is Israel under siege from rocket fire, but the truth itself is under siege. There’s been an ongoing propaganda war and the narrative that is dominating is one that attempts to normalize Hamas and delegitimize Israel. A few days ago, and I spoke about this on the House floor, there was a New York State elected official who posted a map where the state of Israel was nowhere to be found. It simply said Palestine. And the omission was not an accident. 

Wiping Israel off the map is the objective of the BDS movement. And some of the rhetoric that I've heard directed against Israel is just so vitriolic, so hyperbolic. Those of us in elected office have to be mindful of the words we use and the ideas we amplify. Are we using words and ideas that are aimed at promoting peace? Or are we using words and ideas that are aimed at inciting hatred? And we have to be careful not to mistake hatred of Israel for peace. The two in my mind are mutually exclusive.

BW: Let’s talk about some of that rhetoric that's been coming out the left wing of the Democratic Party. Congresswoman Cori Bush likened American police brutality to Israeli state violence. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts said Palestinians “are being told the same thing as black folks in America. There is no acceptable form of resistance.” Jamaal Bowman, your colleague from New York, said “enough of black and brown bodies being brutalized and murdered” — as if the majority of Israeli Jews aren’t people of color. And Bowman called you out specifically. 

The notion that Israel should never have come into existence, that notion Israel is committing the worst human rights atrocities on planet Earth — those are canards that have been with us for a long time. But the statements that I just read to you, those to me seem new. Those are about grafting American parochial racial politics onto a foreign conflict

RT: First, I have a rule of never commenting on a lot of the opinions that colleagues expressed publicly for the sake of collegiality, and I respect everyone you just mentioned. Obviously I have a difference of opinion. For me, it should be possible to speak out against the eviction of a Palestinian family without equating it to ethnic cleansing. It should be possible to constructively critique the policies and practices of the Israeli government without calling for the destruction of Israel itself. My issue is not criticism. My issue is the lack of nuance in the democratic socialist critique of Israel. What is often directed toward Israel is not criticism. It feels like hatred. And I've observed it since 2014 when I began engaging with this issue.

BW: But those statements I read, are they promoting understanding or promoting hatred?

RT: Again, I don’t want to be put in a position of speaking out against colleagues because I have working relationships with all of them. But in general, I worry that the rhetoric that I have heard is aimed at delegitimizing Israel rather than de-escalating the conflict. 

BW:  Do you worry about the trickle-down effect of the rhetoric of demonizing Israel, demonizing supporters of Israel, and the anti-Semitic attacks we are seeing?

RT: For me, the main culprit is Twitter. Twitter is a cesspool of antisemitism. I’m not suggesting that all criticism of Israel is antisemitic. But Twitter is just a cesspool of antisemitic invective. It has the effect of amplifying the ideological extremes. The most egregious example is Donald Trump. And a visible vocal minority on Twitter can easily be mistaken for the majority and elected officials often mistake Twitter for the real world. And the amplification of ideas on Twitter can have a profound effect on the psyche of an activist or an elected official. It feels like people are jumping on the bandwagon against Israel and are making grand pronouncements without understanding the context, without fully understanding the facts. Increasingly, we’re operating on tweets and memes and infographics rather than actual facts. 

I see our present moment, fundamentally, as an epistemic crisis. We’re losing a conception of what it means to know, of what it means to have knowledge. One piece of advice that I'm giving to Andrew [Yang, currently running for mayor of New York] is to never take a position on an issue unless you've heard both sides of the argument, unless you study the issue so exhaustively that you can defend it and you can stand by it. That's advice I would give to anyone. And Twitter just seems incompatible with critical thought.

BW: What are we supposed to do about it? Is there any policy solution to the hate spreading on Twitter? Or is it just that we need to combat bad ideas and bad language with better ideas and better language?

RT: We have to speak out. We have to make the progressive case for peaceful coexistence of a Jewish state and a Palestinian state. That perspective has to be heard because increasingly it’s crowded out. I’ve been demonized as a supporter of apartheid, genocide and ethnic cleansing, and it’s certainly painful to me. It’s painful to my loved ones. But I feel like I have an obligation to speak out, because if I’m silent, if I censor myself, then I'm part of the problem, I become complicit through silence.

BW: What do you say to the young person, the 22-year-old, who looks up to you and says, wow, I really agree with Richie Torres. I am a progressive.I am heartbroken by the loss of life in Gaza. I also support Israel's right to protect itself. But why would I ever speak out? Look at what's happening to him. Why would I risk that reputational harm? 

RT: There's nothing more important than freedom of thought and conscience. If you live in such fear that you're unwilling to assert free thought and free conscience, you cannot claim to be free. Wherever there’s fear, there can never be freedom. That’s been my philosophy of life. And if you believe something is right, you have an obligation to say it and to stand by it and not relent in the face of a Twitter backlash.

I was born, bred and battle tested in the Bronx, so I have had to face far greater challenges in my life than mean tweets. There’s no doubt in my mind that there should be a peaceful coexistence of Israelis and Palestinians. And I will continue to speak out forcefully against the delegitimization campaign against Israel because I feel it’s fundamentally wrong and it’s fundamentally incompatible with the proper conception of peace.

BW: I’d like to ask you about the implications of what’s called Critical Social Justice or Critical Race Theory, that says you are either oppressed or oppressor and its connection to this issue. I think there are many harmful consequences stemming from this conception of the world. One of them is that Jewish history is erased and Jews become nothing more than white people, who do not merely benefit from white privilege, but are doubly sinning because they're also supporting what, in this conception of the world, is the last standing bastion of white colonialism in the Middle East. To what extent is there a connection between the spread of this ideology inside of our elite institutions and the demonization of Israel and of supporters of Israel?

RT: That’s a heavy question. I have spoken about systemic racism and I believe systemic racism is an actual phenomenon. So I think the application of these ideas can vary and I want to be careful not to make sweeping pronouncements. In my opinion, a proper understanding of intersectionality recognizes the Jewish struggle for liberation. If you are ignoring the Jewish struggle for liberation, that to me is a problem. You can't ignore the fact that the that the Jews historically have been the target of oppression, the target of firearms and genocidal anti-Semitism, and there's a historical context that explains the necessity of a Jewish state. 

When I went to Israel, the two experiences that had the most profound impact on me were Yad Vashem and Masada. And for me, the words “never again” summarize the rationale for a Jewish state. Never again will the Jewish community have to commit mass suicide in order to escape escape enslavement at the hands of a foreign enemy like it did in the Masada. And never again will the Jewish community fall victim to ethnic cleansing and genocide, as it did during the Holocaust. You cannot erase those experiences of oppression because those experiences explain the moral and historical necessity of Israel as a Jewish state. 

I want to be clear: I’m a secularist, so I’m not persuaded by religious arguments whether it's from Judaism or Christianity or Islam. I’m ultimately persuaded by secular, historical, moral arguments for Israel as a Jewish state and the peaceful coexistence of a Jewish state and a Palestinian state.

BW: Why does it seem to me like you are such a lonely voice? Where are the other politicians that we would expect to be standing with you publicly this week, people like Chuck Schumer, for example?

RT: I have not been monitoring what everyone has said, but certainly more than one elected official has spoken out and affirmed support for Israel in support for the American Israeli relationship. It’s also reasonable for people to express empathy for the plight of Palestinians and the high death toll that has been inflicted on Palestinians. And so, you know, I support a cease-fire in the short term and then a two-state solution in the long term. My issue is the demonization of Israel as a Jewish state and the attempt to wipe Israel off the map. That, to me, is unacceptable. I’m going to speak out against it and we're going to fight it at every turn. And I’m not going to be intimidated by that fight.

BW: There are a lot of people who are looking at where the prevailing political winds are shifting and they are seeing a Democratic Party where the Squad’s position on Israel may not be the majority position today, but absolutely has the energy of the younger generation, it absolutely has the energy of popular culture, and that this will be the future of the party.

RT: The trajectory of the party is going to depend on us. I'm part of the party and I'm hoping to shape it in the direction of preserving Israel as a Jewish state and promoting the two-state solution as the best path forward. I speak out because I want to play a role in actively shaping the trajectory of the party, and that's why I encourage others to do the same.

BW: This is not the first time that you’ve publicly gone against the grain. You came out against defunding the police. You’re supporting Andrew Yang, who others in your party have criticized strongly. Where do you find the courage to take positions that may not be popular? 

RT: Look, I’m a product of the Bronx. I represent my district, and the people of the South Bronx are practical, not ideological, and have their feet firmly planted on the ground rather than their heads in the skies. I find that prevailing opinion is often more academic, more ivory tower, more utopian than the practical sensibilities of the South Bronx and, frankly, the rank and file of the Democratic Party. 

So I would submit to you that I represent the practical concerns and sensibilities of everyday people in the Bronx. Most people in the Bronx do not weigh in on questions of geopolitics. Their concerns are health and housing, schools, and jobs. The need for safe, decent, affordable housing, access to the Internet, access to credit, access to a quality education, safe streets, policing that's both fair and just, accountable and transparent. Those are the practical concerns that I hear from the people I represent, which is quite different from what is amplified on social media.

For a very different take on this same subject, don’t miss Jill Kargman’s cracking essay in Tablet.

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