ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 192

US Representative Ritchie Torres (Democrat, New York) at a house in Kibbutz Nir Oz, March 31, 2024 (Gabriel Sod, Courtesy of UJA-Federation)
Main image: US Representative Ritchie Torres (Democrat, New York) at a house in Kibbutz Nir Oz, March 31, 2024 (Gabriel Sod, Courtesy of UJA-Federation)
Interview'Israel faces a level of insecurity that has no American analog'

The ‘improbable friend’: For true progressives, Israel is an exemplar, says Ritchie Torres

A soundbite-packed interview with the visiting Democratic rising star, a Bronx congressional neighbor of AOC who rejects her ‘genocide’ allegation as a blood libel

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

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

Congressman Ritchie Torres’s first trip abroad, ever, was to Israel — as a newly elected 26-year-old member of the New York City Council, nine years ago. It was, he says, “one of the most formative and transformative experiences of my life.” And it helped make him “more visibly and vocally pro-Israel than most people,” and especially those of his Afro-Latino background.

Thus, while his Bronx Congressional neighbor Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a fellow rising “political star,” was last month accusing Israel of carrying out “genocide” in Gaza, Torres, who calls the allegation “a blood libel,” was finalizing preparations for another of his many Israel visits, his first since October 7.

Arranged by the UJA Federation of New York, Torres’s short trip this week saw him meet the families of hostages held by Hamas in Gaza, visit the western Negev communities where 1,200 people were slaughtered, and sit with Israeli political leaders.

Shortly before heading home, he explained to The Times of Israel over a morning coffee why he believes “the elites” have bought into a false ideology about Israel and gotten the Israel-Hamas war so wrong, why he thinks nonetheless that the majority of Americans stand with Israel, why Israel exemplifies rather than contradicts truly progressive values, and why he respectfully disagrees with the Biden administration’s decision to allow last week’s UN Security Council ceasefire resolution to pass. “I see the goal of removing Hamas from power as nonnegotiable,” he said.

Torres, who is passionate, erudite and strikingly succinct — almost every sentence in our interview is a soundbite — said he had told Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, “You’re prosecuting a defensive war in the most complex warzone in human history.”

I imagined Gallant thinking to himself, Finally, someone who gets it…

US Representative Ritchie Torres (Democrat, New York), Jerusalem, April 2, 2024 (Times of Israel)

The Times of Israel: You came on Sunday, and this is the first time you’ve been here since October 7, but you’d been here how many times before?

Congressman Ritchie Torres: I’ve been traveling to Israel for almost a decade, since February 2015. In fact, the first time I ever traveled abroad was when I came here to Israel. But it’s the first time since October 7, and it’s a country that’s been transformed. It’s a paradox, because I’ve been struck by the remarkable resilience of the Israeli people, but it’s also a country that remains in a state of deep grief and mourning. And so there’s a paradoxical mix of strength and sorrow.

You went down to the area where Hamas carried out its massacre. You’re familiar with the country from beforehand. Your political next-door neighbor has accused us of genocide. Explain to me what you see, that some of Israel’s worst critics don’t. What don’t they get?

I see the truth.

First, the accusation of genocide against Israel is a blood libel.

The single greatest victim of the war has been the word “genocide,” which has lost the moral force that it once commanded. Our language has become so degraded.

October 7 was a crime against humanity so barbaric that it cannot be ignored. It cannot go unpunished. Hamas must be brought to justice

But the war did not transpire in a vacuum. It came in response to October 7. For me, October 7 was a crime against humanity so barbaric that it cannot be ignored. It cannot go unpunished. Hamas must be brought to justice. It must be removed from power.

When I’m reflecting on October 7, I’m reminded of the words of Robert Jackson, who was the chief prosecutor in the Nuremberg trials. He said in his opening statement, “The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish are so malignant, so calculated, so devastating, that we cannot tolerate their being ignored because we cannot survive their being repeated.”

Those same words should be said about October 7. Israel cannot tolerate October 7 being ignored because the Jewish state cannot survive it being repeated.

And yet, in a lot of reporting, October 7 has already been airbrushed out of history.

It’s amnesia.

Almost immediately. Not six months later, but two, three, four days after. How do you explain that?

It feels like the elites of our society have bought into an ideology that divides the world into the oppressor versus the oppressed. And for the elites of our society, Israel is the oppressor that can do no right, and Hamas is the oppressed that can do no wrong. And that is this distorting simplistic lens through which much of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is seen… The inability to see the victimhood of Israel in the wake of October 7…

The “elites of society”? It’s not just the elites, it’s masses…

That’s not entirely clear to me. I think we have to be careful not to mistake a visible vocal minority, amplified on Twitter, for a majority. My overarching message to the Israeli people is that Israel is not alone. Despite the background and the ways of American politics, the majority of America stands with Israel, the majority of Congress stands with Israel. You might never know that if you live on Twitter, but Twitter is not the real world. It’s a distortion of reality.

Large crowds at demonstrations and so on?

Again, there’s a silent majority that remains committed to the US-Israel relationship. I think people have to be careful not to mistake the astroturf for the genuine grassroots.

Both countries are poorly served by the clash of personalities that we’ve seen between the Biden administration and the Netanyahu administration

What do you think Israel is failing to do, or to put it more constructively, could do better, to have the world understand what is at stake here and what it’s attempting to do in Gaza, which is to dismantle Hamas’s capacity to do this again? Are we failing somewhere?

Look, I feel the relationship, the US-Israel relationship, remains fundamentally intact. But I think both countries are poorly served by the clash of personalities that we’ve seen between the Biden administration and the Netanyahu administration. It’s healthy to have passionate disagreement, but those disagreements should be had behind closed doors. When we allow those disagreements to go out into the public, it creates an exaggerated sense of strain in the relationship that plays into the hands of our enemies.

In that context, the [UN Security Council] ceasefire resolution that went through last week: It doesn’t call for a permanent ceasefire. It does call for the release of the hostages, but it doesn’t condition even a temporary truce on that. And the United States, the administration that you’re loyal to and supportive of, chose not to block that. What do you make of that?

I think rule number one in geopolitics is never cancel a meeting with a superpower

So, you know President Biden has been fundamentally supportive of Israel, but I respectfully disagree with the decision to abstain from the Security Council resolution. The Security Council resolution calls for both the release of the hostages and a temporary ceasefire, but it fails to link the two. In my view, the delinking of the two is a victory for Hamas. It provides Hamas with enhanced leverage, both in the war and in the hostage negotiations. I thought the United States made a profound misjudgment.

But I thought it was unwise for the prime minister to cancel a delegation [that was set to go to Washington, DC, for talks with the administration on tackling Hamas in southern Gaza’s Rafah]. I think rule number one in geopolitics is never cancel a meeting with a superpower.

Tell me a little bit about yourself, and how you’ve come to hold these kinds of attitudes and stances… How did you evolve into the person you are, with the views that you have?

There’s a sense in which I am an improbable friend of both the Jewish community and the Jewish state. 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 by the Jewish Community Relations Council to go on a delegation to Israel. When I went to Israel, it was one of the most formative and transformative experiences of my life.

Going to Yad Vashem, going to Masada, going to Sderot [in southern Israel close to the Gaza border].

I remember speaking to a local mayor who said that the majority of his children struggle with post-traumatic stress because families like his live under the threat of relentless rocket fire.

In the Bronx, I represent one of the poorest areas in the country. We are hit hard by gun violence. I have constituents who live in fear of bullets. But no one in the United States lives in fear of rockets

I remember seeing bus stops doubling as bomb shelters. I thought to myself, imagine the sheer trauma of a five-year-old who’s seeking refuge in a bomb shelter while sirens are going off and rockets are being fired and adults are panicking in a state of pandemonium.

In the Bronx, I represent one of the poorest areas in the country. We are hit hard by gun violence. I have constituents who live in fear of bullets. But no one in the United States lives in fear of rockets. None of us worry that Mexico and Canada are going to fire rockets into American homes and communities.

I came to realize early on, 10 years ago, that Israel faces a level of insecurity and volatility that has no analog in the American experience. I tell people, It’s not my place to tell you what to think about Israel, but I will tell you how to think; that before you rush to judge Israel, you should actually come here. There is no substitute for experiencing the complexity of Israel, and the majesty of Israel, with your own eyes.

US Representative Ritchie Torres (Democrat, New York) at Moshav Netiv HaAsara, March 31, 2024 (Gabriel Sod, Courtesy of UJA-Federation)

And what did you see on this trip? I’m sure you were following incredibly closely in the last six months, but then you came, and you went to the catastrophe zone, and you met with families of hostages and so on. Were there things that you recognized or realized or internalized, being here, that you hadn’t really realized in the last few months? What did this trip show you?

It struck me that it’s my first time coming to Israel without going to Yad Vashem, because when you go to the [site of the] Nova music festival [where some 360 people were massacred] or a kibbutz like Nir Oz, it’s reminiscent of a holocaust.

Nir Oz, one-fourth of the population was either kidnapped or killed. A third of the homes were burned. It’s a community that’s been visibly reduced to rubble.

The Nova festival, it’s just tragic, that you had innocent young Israelis who were gunned down in cold blood.

US Representative Ritchie Torres (right) meets with Daniel Lifshitz, whose grandfather Oded Lifshitz is held hostage in Gaza, in Tel Aviv’s Hostages Square, March 31, 2024. (Hostages and Missing Families Forum)

But I was inspired by… I met with a gentleman named Ophir, who was one of the survivors and producers of the Nova festival. I saw him wearing a tag that was different from the typical [Bring Them Home Now] tag that I had seen. I asked him, What does it say? He said, It says, We will dance again.

I feel like the phrase “We will dance again” beautifully summarizes the resilience of Israel. The story of Israel, the story of the Jewish people, is a story of rebuilding. It’s a of resilience. It’s a story that says, We will dance again.

You’re going to go back and you’re going to be asked about this trip, and people will ask you, Yeah, but lots of people are being killed in Gaza. Overnight last night, there’s a report still being checked that Israel killed four or five international aid distribution people [from World Central Kitchen; the total was later put at 7 in what the IDF called a “tragic incident”] in Gaza in a bombing. People are going to say, Well, there’s so many people being killed in Gaza. Shouldn’t they be stopping now? And what will you say to that?

If Hamas remains in power, there will never be an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There will never be an end to the cycle of violence and warfare. And the leadership of Hamas has publicly said that October 7 was not a one-time event, that there will be a second, and a third, and a fourth, that Hamas will settle for nothing less than the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state.

No country on Earth, including Israel, should be expected to coexist with a genocidal terror organization. It’s an untenable situation for any country, including Israel.

Gaza is a hellscape of terror tunnels and booby-trapped buildings and combatants camouflaged as civilians. It’s staggering to me that the tunnel network is like one-half of the New York City subway system

I see the goal of removing Hamas from power as nonnegotiable. When I met with the defense minister, Yoav Gallant, I said, You’re prosecuting a defensive war in the most complex warzone in human history.

Gaza is a hellscape of terror tunnels and booby-trapped buildings and combatants camouflaged as civilians. It’s staggering to me that the tunnel network is like one-half of the New York City subway system. Hamas is known to hide behind its own civilians as human shields. It’s known to hide military assets in schools and hospitals and places of worship. The real cause of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is not Israel. It’s Hamas’s unprecedented militarization of its own civilian population.

You’re saying that you’re not really an outlier in terms of the US political leadership [and its support of Israel]…?

I’m an outlier [in that] I am more visibly and vocally pro-Israel than most people, and my running joke is, I feel it in my kishkes. I think the intensity of my advocacy is an outlier. But there’s nothing radical about the views that I hold.

What makes me distinctive is not the nature of my beliefs. It is that I’m willing to say what most people are thinking but are often too afraid to say. I refuse to live in fear of the extremes.

I was recently at a convenience store in the Capitol, heckled by anti-Israel activists.

How many people were on that side of the camera?

Two people were heckling me. And I fought back.

The greatest threat to the US-Israel relationship, the greatest threat to liberal democracy, is not the far left or the far right. It’s the cowardice of a center that lives in fear of the extremes

And what do you say to your political colleagues? Do you have discussions with them on this?

I tell my colleagues, Twitter is not the real world, and stop living in fear of the extremes. I’ve often said the greatest threat to the US-Israel relationship, the greatest threat to liberal democracy, is not the far left or the far right. It’s the cowardice of a center that lives in fear of the extremes.

Franklin Roosevelt was exactly right. The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. And so I refuse to live in fear.

The notion that you’ve put out, of Israelis being, in the American sense, a majority nation of color. Explain to me why you reach that conclusion and why you think it’s worth highlighting.

I ultimately feel like countries should be judged by their conduct, not by their color. But there is an intersectionalist worldview that divides the universe into black versus white. And there’s a false narrative that Israel is a, quote, white country or a, quote, white supremacist country. Anyone who makes those claims is utterly ignorant of Israel as a multiracial, multiethnic, multilingual democracy, of which there are few examples in the world.

Even by its own logic, the intersectionalist critique of Israel fails, because it ignores the reality of Israel as a multiracial, multiethnic, multilingual democracy

The majority of Israelis are people of color. Even if you set aside Israeli Arabs, the majority of Israeli Jews, Mizrahi Jews, Ethiopian Jews would qualify as people of color in the American sense of the word.

And so even by its own logic, the intersectionalist critique of Israel fails, because it ignores the reality of Israel as a multiracial, multiethnic, multilingual democracy.

Now people might claim there are complicated race relations between Jews and Arabs. And I simply reply, The only countries that have no racial tensions are the countries that have no racial diversity. There are no racial tensions in Japan because there’s no racial diversity.

I admire those countries, like the United States, like Israel, that do everything they can to make multiracial democracy work. It is a miracle in the history of humankind. What Israel represents, what America represents, is an outlier in human history.

For me, the notion of Israel as a sanctuary for historically oppressed people is profoundly progressive

And that’s why you say, as a progressive, this is a country that meets or exemplifies your progressive values? Explain that as well, again, because it’s not what other people are saying.

I think part of progressivism is liberation of the oppressed. Jews have had to face a long and ugly history of violent antisemitism: exile, expulsions, pogroms, inquisitions, crusades, ethnic cleansing, genocide.

For me, the notion of Israel as a sanctuary for historically oppressed people is profoundly progressive.

Israel is the only country in the Middle East that is remotely protective of LGBTQ rights and minority rights and women’s rights. It has a strong, independent judiciary. It has all the hallmarks of a liberal democracy. If you compare countries like the United States and Israel to utopia, then we all fail miserably. But if you compare it to the rest of the world, it’s a liberal democratic success story. It’s an oasis of ingenuity and democracy in a region where none exist.

You’re going home today. What use are you going to make of this trip?

Pro-Israel advocacy has become a central part of my life, and I’m going to return to the United States more motivated than ever to make the case for the US-Israel relationship, that we have to stand by Israel in its moment of greatest need. Israel stood with the United States in the wake of 9/11, in our moment of greatest need, and we must stand with Israel in the wake of October 7, in its moment of greatest need.

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