Ritchie Torres slams ‘blithering idiots’ behind secret Israeli influence campaign

Lawmaker says ‘brain might be rotting’ of anyone who thinks he needs convincing to support Israel, after NYT report on effort to encourage Black Democrats to back military funding

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

Democratic Representative Ritchie Torres of New York speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 17, 2023. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images/AFP)
Democratic Representative Ritchie Torres of New York speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 17, 2023. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images/AFP)

New York Jewish Week via JTA — New York Representative Ritchie Torres, one of Israel’s staunchest supporters in Congress, said a reported clandestine campaign by the Israeli government that aimed to influence him and other Black Democratic US lawmakers was “embarrassing” and “racist.”

The effort, according to a report this week in The New York Times, was orchestrated by Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Ministry and targeted members of Congress and the US public with a pro-Israel social media campaign using hundreds of fake social media profiles.

The $2 million project in conjunction with Stoic, a Tel Aviv-based marketing firm, began in October and continued at least until this week, according to the Times. Involving multiple fake news sites and the artificial intelligence tool ChatGPT, the operation urged lawmakers to fund Israel’s military effort. (It also included some missteps, such as accounts supposedly of Black men posting as a “middle-aged Jewish woman.”)

The campaign focused on several members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including Torres, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York, and Senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia, the report said.

The campaign’s focus on Torres was notable because his social media presence is a quintessential example of unabashed and outspoken pro-Israel activism, and he is something of a star in Israel. Torres nodded to that in a statement on X on Friday.

“If you think I need to be ‘influenced’ to be pro-Israel, then please see a doctor because your brain might be rotting,” he wrote. He followed up with what was for him a rare criticism of an Israeli action.

“The blithering idiots behind this embarrassing operation should be fired for gross incompetence,” Torres wrote. “A foreign influence operation that singles out Black Congressional Democrats is racist. There’s no correlation at all between race and Israel in the United States Congress.”

US Representative Ritchie Torres (Democrat, New York) at a house in Kibbutz Nir Oz, March 31, 2024 (Gabriel Sod, Courtesy of UJA-Federation)

The campaign drew criticism from other supporters of Israel, including Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the United States, who said he was “appalled” by the report, which said the campaign was the first of its type to be attributed to the Israeli government.

“If the report is true, the campaign represents a flagrant violation of American law and an inappropriate interference in the internal politics of our most important ally,” Oren wrote on X, adding that the project caused “strategic damage” to Israel during the war.

Oren demanded the Israeli government investigate the report’s claims, “disassociate and denounce” the campaign and fire those involved.

In a nearly identical post in Hebrew, Oren added criticism of the campaign’s focus on Black lawmakers, and called out Diaspora Minister Amichai Chikli, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party.

Minister of Diaspora Affairs Amichai Chikli speaks at a Knesset committee meeting, on December 19, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Chikli hit back at Oren, writing on X that the former ambassador was “appalled for attention.” Chikli claimed that “there is no engagement with the company accused of influence in the New York Times article,” Stoic.

Chikli has caused previous headaches for the Israeli government’s US relations since becoming Diaspora affairs minister in 2022. Last year, before the start of the war, he accused President Joe Biden of colluding with the Israeli opposition, antagonized left-wing US Jewish groups, and told off the US ambassador to Israel. In April, bucking longstanding diplomatic protocol, he endorsed Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

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