Progressively Prosemitic

By Reuvain Borchardt

U.S. Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.)

U.S. Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.) chats with Hamodia about his outspoken support for Israel, his public stances against antisemitism, and his takeaways from the 2022 midterm elections.

Interview has been edited for length.

How did a progressive Democrat from the Bronx whose district hardly has any Jews (though following redistricting, will begin representing Riverdale next year) become like the self-appointed most vocal supporter of Israel and Jews in the House?

I come from a background that makes me empathetic.

I was born and raised in the Bronx. I spent almost all my life in poverty. I was raised by a single mother who had to bring up three children on minimum wage, which, in the 1990s, was a mere $4.25 an hour. And so I have lived experiences that give me empathy for the plight of historically oppressed people. And the Jewish community, by far, has been historically oppressed. One need not be Jewish to fight antisemitism, just like one need not be Black to fight anti-Black racism. I think we’re all in this together; we all have an obligation to combat extremism in every form, and from every direction.

Torres placing a note (inset) into the Western Wall last month.

You’ve spoken about how your views on Israel were influenced by a trip, organized by the Jewish Community Relations Council, that you participated in shortly after you became a New York City Councilman. Tell us about your experiences on the trip.

I first went to Israel in February 2015. There were three experiences that had a profound impact on me. The first was Yad Vashem. The second was the Masada. And the third was Sderot.

In Sderot, I saw bus stops doubled as bomb shelters. I saw, firsthand, the trauma of residents who have to live under the fear of relentless rocket fire, the trauma of children seeking refuge in bomb shelters as sirens go off. In the Bronx, we often live in fear of a bullet. But in Sderot, the people live in fear of rockets. So it was a reminder that Israel faces a level of insecurity that has no real equivalent here in the United States. There’s no one in the United States who lives in fear of rockets. And so it crystallized for me the unique security situation that affects Israel as a Jewish state.

Though you’re described as a progressive, you’ve clashed openly with the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) on Israel and other issues. In addition to the public fights on Twitter, are there any conversations that you personally have had with DSA members that you want to share?

I have nothing to do with the DSA. I have a rule: I never associate with any organization that supports BDS [the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel]. I consider BDS a form of antisemitism, and I refuse to associate with any organization that propagates antisemitism.

Strictly on economic issues, do you agree with democratic socialist ideology?

I’m not a democratic socialist. I’m a traditional liberal Democrat.

One of many tweets by Torres attacking a far-left Democrat’s criticisms of Israel.

You’ve called for the Justice Department to investigate antisemitic crimes in New York because of insufficient prosecution of these crimes by local law enforcement. Tell us a bit about that. [Ed. see letter below].

It seems to me the criminal-justice system here in New York has been fundamentally ineffective at policing and prosecuting hate crimes. Hate crimes in New York rarely result in imprisonment. And I get the sense from the Jewish community that there is a crisis of confidence in the criminal-justice system. And if you’re a member of the Jewish community, and you feel the criminal-justice system will fail to prosecute hate crimes against you, then you have no incentive to report those crimes.

That’s what I worry about — that the lack of trust in the criminal-justice system could lead to underreporting of hate crimes. And so I wrote a letter to the Department of Justice calling on the attorney general to conduct an investigation into New York’s failure to police and prosecute hate crimes. I see the failure as a civil-rights violation against the Jewish community.

Democrats performed well nationally in the 2022 elections, compared to expectations, but not in New York. Democrats lost four House seats in New York. To what do you attribute the Democratic overperformance nationally but underperformance in New York?

The cruelest irony of the midterm election is that there was a red wave nowhere except New York. In New York, we lost multiple congressional seats, particularly in Long Island and the Hudson Valley. And the issue can be summed up in one word: crime. Lee Zeldin ran on a platform of crime, which drove up the Republican vote, resulting in congressional losses for the Democrats. And those of us who are Democrats have to be careful not to cede the issue of public safety, the issue of crime, to the Republican Party. We have to regain our credibility on the subject of public safety. That, to me, is one of the most important lessons learned from the midterm elections.

Torres at a fundraiser for Democratic Queens Assemblyman Dan Rosenthal at the home of askanit Sorolle Idels, in October. (Shabsie Saphirstein)

Do you think the problem was one of policy or messaging or campaigning?

All of the above.

Some people are calling for a change in the Democratic Party leadership in New York. Do you join those calls?

It depends on the alternative. Be careful what you wish for.

You mean you want to see who’s being proposed for party leadership before kicking out the current leadership?

Right. I would prefer to see what the options are, and then I will express an opinion.

This interview was originally published in Hamodia’s Prime Magazine.

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