‘I’m an Accidental Advocate for Israel,’ Ritchie Torres Says on Visit to Jewish State

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant meets with Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.) at the Ministry of Defense headquarters in Tel Aviv on April 2, 2024. Credit: Shira Keinan/Israeli Ministry of Defense.

JERUSALEM (JNS)- One of Israel’s staunchest supporters in Congress met with families of hostages held by Hamas in Gaza and visited southwestern communities, where 1,200 people were murdered on Oct. 7, during a brief visit to Israel this week.

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Rep. Richie Torres (D-N.Y.) also met in Israel with political leaders, including Yoav Gallant, the Israeli defense minister.

“Congressman Torres reflects our extraordinary ties and true friendship, as well as the importance of U.S. leadership in this region, at this time,” Gallant stated after their meeting at the Ministry of Defense headquarters in Tel Aviv.

“I came to Israel with a simple but essential message: that Israel is not alone. Israel has a right to defend itself against Hamas in the wake of Oct. 7, just like the United States had a right to defend itself against al Qaeda in the wake of 9/11,” Torres said, per a readout from the Israeli government. “The highest priority must be the release of the hostages and the removal of Hamas from power.”

During his trip, Torres also held a wide-ranging interview with JNS.

Responses have been lightly edited for style.

Q: What message do you bring to Israel on this visit? 

A: It’s my first time since Oct. 7, and I came here with a simple message that Israel is not alone. I stand with Israel. Most Americans stand with Israel. Most members of Congress stand with Israel.

I ignore the background noise of American politics and know that the U.S.-Israel relationship remains fundamentally intact.

Q: What are some differences you’ve found during this visit compared to prior ones?

A: My experience here has been gut-wrenching.

I’ve been traveling to Israel for about 10 years, and I find a country that has been transformed, that’s been shaken to the core by Oct. 7.

I’m struck by the remarkable resilience of the Israeli people, the unity and the spontaneous mobilization of civil society. But it also remains a country in a state of deep mourning and grief, and so there is a paradoxical mix of strength and sorrow here in Israel.

Q: You’re one of the most prominent pro-Israel congressmen. Does this hurt you politically?

A: There’s no issue on which I face more hate, harassment and death threats than on the subject of Israel.

I’ve had my office repeatedly vandalized. I’ve been the target of heckling and protests and disruptions. But I’m willing to stand up for what I think is right, even if it means facing criticism and ostracism. Even if it means facing intimidation and harassment.

I believe deeply in Israel, in Israel’s right to defend itself, especially in the wake of Oct. 7.

I’m often reminded of a quote from Hyman Roth, of The Godfather Part II, who once said, “This is the life we’ve chosen.”

This is the life I’ve chosen. I know what I signed up for. And if I’m not here to fight for what I believe in, then I have no business being in public service.

Q: What caused you to be one of the strongest pro-Israeli voices in Congress? 

A: I’m an accidental advocate for Israel, because I grew up in a community that was almost exclusively Latino and African-American. I had no real engagement with the Jewish community for most of my childhood.

The turning point came in 2014. I had become a member of the New York City Council, and I was invited to join a delegation to Israel. When I traveled to Israel for the first time, it was one of the most formative and transformative experiences of my life.

I remember speaking to a local mayor, who said that the majority of his children struggled with post-traumatic stress because families like his lived under the threat of relentless rocket fire. I remember seeing bus stops acting as bomb shelters.

I thought to myself, imagine the sheer trauma of a five-year-old, who’s seeking refuge in a bomb shelter with rockets being fired, sirens going off and adults panicking in a state of pandemonium.

I tell people, before you rush to judge Israel, you should actually come here and see the facts on the ground.

Q: What do you think about Senator Chuck Schumer’s recent speech about Israel? 

A: Senator Schumer is the highest-ranking Jewish elected official in American history. I know for a fact that he cares deeply about Israel and he sees himself as the defender of the Jewish people, so I have enormous respect for Senator Schumer.

As someone who is neither Israeli nor Jewish, I feel like I have no right to weigh in on the domestic politics of Israel. I have my hands full with the messiness of American politics, and I feel no need to inject myself into the messiness of Israeli politics.

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

Q: What did you think about his statement that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Hamas are both obstacles to peace?

A: Well, I’m not sure that Senator Schumer believes that Netanyahu and Hamas are comparable obstacles to peace. I think most people recognize that the single greatest obstacle to peace is violent extremism embodied by the likes of Hamas.

A: I think that Oct. 7 has reinforced for me the belief that there will never be peace as long as Hamas remains in power.

If any outcome of the war is short of removing Hamas from power, it would constitute a massive strategic failure. If Hamas remains in power, it will regroup, rearm and launch even deadlier terror attacks than the atrocities of Oct. 7.

Q: Did it change your view about a two-state solution? 

A: Events like Oct. 7. and the Second Intifada weaken rather than strengthen the prospects for a two-state solution. There is no greater enemy of Palestinian statehood than the kind of violent extremism that we see from genocidal terror organizations like Hamas.

I think the two-state solution is a long-term aspiration, but there are no conditions on the ground now that are remotely conducive to a two-state solution.

There will never be a two-state solution with Hamas in power, and there will never be a two-state solution as long as organizations like the Palestinian Authority are subsidizing “martyrs” who murder Jews.

A: Well, I’m not going to comment on the internal affairs of the progressive caucus. But it is fair to say that there are pro-Israel Democrats who feel increasingly alienated from the progressive movement.

There has been a concerted effort by the BDS movement to purge pro-Israel voices from progressive circles, and I’m actively fighting against it.

My basic concern is that the far left could be to the Democratic Party in American politics what Jeremy Corbyn became to the Labor Party in British politics.

The burden falls on pro-Israel Democrats like myself to resist the Jeremy Corbynization of progressive politics in America.

Q: Do you think Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and others should stay in your party?

A: It’s not my place to decide who should remain in the party but it’s fair to say that Congressmember Omar and I have fundamentally different views on Israel.

I would argue that my views are much more representative of the mainstream and that most Americans remain supportive of U.S.-Israel relations.

Q: What do you think when you hear Netanyahu and U.S. President Joe Biden issue statements publicly clashing with one another?

A: Well, what we’re witnessing is not a change in U.S.-Israeli policy; which stays the same. What we’re witnessing is a clash of personalities between the Biden administration and the Netanyahu administration.

In every relationship and every friendship and marriage, it is constructive to have disagreements.

But those disagreements should be in private and the public clash of personalities undermines the U.S.-Israel relationship and both sides are poorly served by it.

Q: A lot of Israelis think that Donald Trump will be a better president for Israel than Biden. 

A: Well, if you’ve seen the latest comments from Trump, he’s been raising questions about Israel’s right to win the war and remove Hamas from power. So, you might have a radically different Donald Trump.

I would argue that Donald Trump will not only radicalize the far right but also radicalize the far left in American politics to the detriment of the U.S.-Israel relationship.

Q: Has the U.S. election cycle affected Biden administration policy?

A: You cannot take politics out of politics, so the influence of electoral politics is inevitable. But there’s no doubt in my mind that the president is fundamentally pro-Israel.

He is the first president to travel to Israel in a time of war. He’s sent not one, but two aircraft carriers to the Mediterranean.

He continues to provide Israel with the ammunition that it needs to win the war of self-defense. So when you examine his actions, he has been objectively and fundamentally pro-Israel and that will remain unchanged, because he is a Zionist to his core.

Q: Do you think some decisions, like not vetoing the recent U.N. Security Council resolution, are motivated by the upcoming election?

A: The change that we are seeing is unfolding at the level of political rhetoric, not at the level of policy.

The policy remains the same. I do feel the United States made the wrong decision to abstain from the U.N. Security Council resolution.

The resolution calls for both a temporary ceasefire and a release of the hostages, but it fails to link the two and I worry that the delinking of those two demands gives Hamas enhanced leverage in the war.

I thought it was a colossal strategic misjudgment for the United States to abstain, but that is an aberration on an otherwise pro-Israel record that the president has built.

Q: Some of your party members are calling for an arms embargo on Israel. Do you think we will have some sort of weapons embargo against Israel? 

A: No. Not under President Biden.

Q: There’s a lot of recent criticism about AIPAC’s role in American politics. How do you see its role?

A: Washington, D.C. is full of organizations that advocate and lobby, which is an exercise of the First Amendment. As far as I’m concerned, there is nothing sinister or nefarious about AIPAC lobbying for the U.S.-Israel relationship.

The demonization of APAC is over the top. It’s hysterical. It’s hyperbolic and often has a subtext of antisemitism. There are people who substitute the word “AIPAC” or “Zionism” for “Jews” to engage in coded antisemitism.

Q: What should the Israeli public know about your party’s stance? 

A: My simple message is that Israel is not alone. Most Democrats stand with Israel. Most Americans stand with Israel. There are more people like me in the United States than there are from the other side—the anti-Israel side.

My message to the Israeli people is I believe in you and I’m committed to strengthening and sustaining the U.S.-Israel relationship for the next 76 years.

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3 months ago

Even though I really appreciate Mr. Torres’s friendship and kind words to the Jews, he is still a politician and I respectfully disagree on his stance on Trump. Donald Trump would hold back or delay Israel from invading Rafah for two reasons, 1. he would not have the pressure like Biden has from the left, 2. he would focus on the goal, elimination of Hamas and all the blessings that it brings along with it such as return of the captives and halting of attacks with rockets or kites. He would let Israel decide how to deal with the humanitarian issue.

3 months ago

Amazing !!! I voted for Trump in the primary today ,& I regret it . I can’t believe That Israel still has a friend here .