For the American left, Ritchie Torres might well have stepped straight out of progressive central casting.
The 34-year-old New York congressman is Afro-Latino, grew up in social housing, and is the son of a single mum who worked minimum wage jobs. Nearly 10 years ago, he got his foot on the first rung of the political ladder becoming the Bronx’s first openly gay elected official.
Once on the city council, Mr Torres joined the Progressive Caucus, backed Senator Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton in 2016, and celebrated left-wing firebrand Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset primary victory in the 2018 mid-term elections as “a liberating moment”. Two years later, he joined Ms Ocasio-Cortez as a member of the House of Representatives, soon becoming co-chair of the Congressional LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus.
So far, so woke.
But Mr Torres is also an unapologetic and outspoken supporter of Israel who has been cast aside by former allies who simply can’t abide his backing for the Jewish state.
Even so, Mr Torres is currently cruising towards a second a term. Facing no challenge in this month’s primary elections, he is sure to be re-elected in November; in his Bronx district, which is one of America’s poorest and most Democratic, he took nearly 90 percent of the vote in the general election two years ago
Telegenic, youthful and widely recognised as a rising star – New York Times columnist Bret Stephens labelled him “the most singular political talent of his generation” – Mr Torres could have opted for an easily life.
Instead, the congressman has chosen a rockier ride to the top.
Boundary changes may mean that the heavily Jewish neighbourhood of Riverdale has now been added to his district, but Mr Torres’ backing for Israel has hitherto had little political upside. “Ritchie is unique,” Chaskel Bennett, a member of the board of trustees for Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox Jewish group, told the left-leaning Jewish Currentsmagazine last year. “He isn’t Jewish, has no sizable Jewish constituency and yet is one of the most outspoken pro-Israel voices in Congress.”
Mr Torres’ explanation is a simple one: he refuses to compromise his principles and he sees no contradiction between being on the left and a supporter of Israel.
“The notion that you cannot be both progressive and pro-Israel is a vicious lie,” he told the Jewish Insider as he jockeyed with fellow Democrats in the closely fought 2020 primary contest. His support for the Jewish state, Mr Torres added, was “not despite my progressive values, but because of my progressive values.”
Nor does Mr Torres engage in the linguistic gymnastics about the relationship between the BDS movement, anti-Zionism and antisemitism beloved of some fair-weather friends of Israel. “The act of singling out Israel as BDS has done is the definition of discrimination,” he has suggested, while also labelling the BDS movement “an insidious form of antisemitism”. Anti-Zionism, he has likewise argued, is “a form of antisemitism”.
Mr Torres has also constantly shown a willingness to point out the absurdities and hypocrisies of elements of the anti-Israel left. After the signing of the Abraham Accords, he dryly remarked that he would never have “imagined living in a world where the Sunni Arab world is friendlier to Israel than some elements of progressive politics”.
But Mr Torres’ dark humour often has a cutting edge. After he visited in Israel in 2015, he confronted demonstrators who appeared at City Hall accusing him of “pinkwashing” apartheid. Turning to an activist in a “Queers for Palestine” T-shirt, Mr Torres asked: “Does the opposite exist, are there Palestinians for queers?” “It was partly a joke but partly a serious observation,” he later told the Jewish Insider. “I found it utterly baffling that you had LGBT activists doing the bidding of Hamas, which is a terrorist organization that executes LGBT people.” As if to drive home the point, Mr Torres’ first post-election appearance after winning his congressional primary five years later was at an Israeli Embassy Pride event.
Mr Torres’ struggle with his sexuality – he has spoken of having abused substances and had depression and suicidal feelings before he entered politics – perhaps helps explain his unwillingness to compromise his beliefs. “When you are openly LGBTQ, you have to go through the process of coming out,” he explained on the eve of his election in 2020. “You have to go through a process of embracing who you are and sharing it with the world. And that process teaches you integrity … [which] applies not only to your sexuality, but to every aspect of your life.”
Five months after his arrival in Washington, Mr Torres’ pro-Israel credentials faced their first big test when the simmering conflict between Hamas and the Jewish state was once more ignited by a spate of rocket attacks from Gaza. While Mr Sanders and members of The Squad – the small but noisy grouping of far-left Democrats – raged against Israel’s response and demanded the Biden administration halt a planned multi-million dollar arms sale, Mr Torres refused to buckle.
Instead, he publicly went on the offensive. “I have an unwavering commitment to both the sovereignty and security of Israel as a Jewish state,” he wrote in the New York Post. “With sovereignty and security comes the inherent right of self-defence, a right that every state, including our own, takes for granted. Why should Israel be an exception to the rule? Why should Israel be held to a deadly double standard in a moment of terror?” Arguing that it was not only Israel, but the truth itself, that was “under siege”, Mr Torres went on to lambast the social media “lie that deceptively reframes the terrorism of Hamas as self-defence and deceptively reframes the self-defence of Israel as terrorism.” “We cannot allow ourselves to be silenced by an overbearing Twitter mob, dominated by the extremes of American politics,” he concluded.
Despite his moral clarity and call to arms, Mr Torres has acknowledged the “emotional toll” that his stance has taken. “There’s no topic on which I face more hatred and harassment than on the subject of Israel,” he told a meeting at Manhattan’s Central Synagogue earlier this year. It was, he added, “wrenching” when his mother – after reading tweets during the Gaza conflict accusing of being a supporter of apartheid, ethnic cleansing and genocide – asked him if he was doing the right thing.
But Mr Torres has responded by doubling down and fighting back. He’s not only reaffirmed his long-standing opposition to conditioning military aid to Israel – “Israel is a friend, and the notion of threatening a friend with the loss of funding for its security needs strikes me as absurd,” he argued in 2019 – but also warned the Jewish community against complacency. The effort to stop President Biden from replenishing Israel’s Iron Dome stock may only have mustered nine votes in the House of Representatives last September, he reminded the Central Synagogue meeting, but “we cannot afford to lull ourselves into a false sense of security”.
Taking the lead, Mr Torres has sought to take the fight to Israel’s enemies, while also seeking to reform historic alliances. In May, he spoke at the launch of the New York Solidarity Network, which seeks to direct donations to pro-Israel local politicians, while countering both the BDS movement and the far-left Democratic Socialists of America.
Mr Torres also campaigned for Shontel Brown, a Democrat moderate who overcame a huge poll deficit to beat Nina Turner, a close ally of Mr Sanders, in a much-watched by-election in Ohio last year. The pro-Israel Ms Brown, who easily won a primary rematch against Ms Turner in May, was helped to victory on both occasions by Cleveland’s large Jewish community and the strong backing of national pro-Israel and Jewish groups.
For Mr Torres, the lesson from Ohio for the Democrats’ “civil war” was a clear one: “keep fighting”. “For the first time ever, we saw signs of a counter-revolution,” he told
a call for pro-Israel donors. “We have shown that if we push back, if we resist the hard-left, fiercely competitive races can be won.”
Ms Brown’s victory, Mr Torres also claimed, showed the potential power of an alliance between the Democratic party’s two most loyal constituencies: black and Jewish voters.
“There’s a natural marriage between the pro-Israel Jewish community and the African American community,” Mr Torres suggested. “And that can be the marriage that saves our party from the extreme hard-left.”
Encouraging that marriage and leading the “counter-revolution” is undoubtedly a huge challenge. But Mr Torres may be just the man to lead it.