To go from being admitted to hospital with suicidal thoughts related to his sexuality and dropping out of college to US congressman at the age of 31 shows the inner steel of Ritchie Torres.
So when he tells me he fears he might be assassinated over his vocal support for Israel, it’s a surprise. That a sitting member of Congress will be killed, he says as a matter-of-fact, is “when”, not “if”.
The frontline in the fight for Western values and free speech now runs straight through cities like New York. It’s no longer soldiers fighting in dusty, foreign fields who risk their lives to protect our way of life and beliefs.
His transgression? To point out that Israel is a liberal, Western-style democracy that should be defended from terrorists. For which he has been labelled a “genocide enabler” in inflammatory rhetoric that he believes is “almost bound to escalate to the level of violence”.
“I do fear for my personal safety, and I have long felt that the assassination of a member of Congress is not a question of if, it’s a question of when,” he says flatly.
“But I grew up in public housing in the Bronx and I do not scare easily.”
NEW YORK, NY - August 03: New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio (L) and Rep. Ritchie Torres (R) at the 46th Precincts National Night Out on August 3, 2021 in the Bronx borough of New York City. National Night Out an annual community-building campaign established in 1970 is intended to promote police-community partnerships and neighborhood camaraderie. (Photo by David Dee Delgado/Getty Images)
We speak just days after MP Mike Freer announced he was standing down due to death threats related to his support of Israel. Violent extremism, Torres warns, is on the rise in democracies across the world. He notes that on his third day on the job as Congressman he witnessed the January 6 assault on the Capitol.
The last Congressman to be assassinated on US soil was Robert F Kennedy in 1968. Attempts were made on the lives of Gabby Giffords in 2011 and Steve Scalise in 2017. In the UK Sir David Amess was murdered in 2021 and Jo Cox in 2016. Politics is fast becoming a risky business.
Despite the febrile and dangerous atmosphere, Torres doesn’t have a security detail. It’s not his own safety he is concerned about, anyhow. He fears for his mother, who raised him; his twin brother; and sister, living on her own in what he has labelled “slum conditions”.
“There were anti-Israel activists who said to my mother ‘you’re a genocide mother and you should have aborted your child’. The level of venom and vitriol that has been directed toward me and my family is hard to overstate.”
He pinpoints the source of much of the hate he receives: TikTok. Here the poison of antisemitism is introduced to a new generation and reflected in the genocidal slogans and watermelon signs they carry on Western streets.
More than that, he says, TikTok is a “national security risk”. It is an “act of national self-sabotage”, he says, and “a profound miscalculation that we might live to regret” to put the “leading news source or the next generation” in the “hands of our leading foreign adversary, the Chinese Communist Party”.
Now is the time to enact bipartisan legislation, currently making its way slowly through the Senate, to force TikTok to be sold to an American company, he believes.
“There’s nothing new about antisemitism which is the most ancient form of hatred. What is new is the algorithmic amplification of antisemitism.
“As a New Yorker who lived through 9/11, I never thought in my wildest nightmares that I would see Osama bin Laden’s letter to America trending on TikTok.
“If that is not enough of a provocation to effectuate the sale of TikTok, then nothing is.”
Torres draws strong parallels between the racist opposition to the civil rights movement and the hatred that the Jewish community now faces. In an electrifying speech at Central Synagogue in Manhattan on Martin Luther King Day, he likened those who celebrated Hamas’ October 7 massacre to white people in the Jim Crow era celebrating the lynching of black people.
He tells me that Dr King would have himself been horrified by the Hamas terrorist attack and also by the response, or rather lack of response, from many quarters.
“Dr King would’ve been appalled by the barbaric violence that we saw on October 7, but almost as appalling is the widespread indifference and silence.
“For insight into what Dr King would’ve thought, look no further than his own words. Dr King once said, in the end we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that Dr King would’ve been appalled by the silence from the so-called leaders of our society.”
Like Dr King, Torres refuses to be cowed by the violent mob. He quotes Franklin Roosevelt when he says “the greatest thing we have to fear is fear itself’.
“For me, the greatest threat to liberal democracy does not come from the far right or from the far left, it comes from the complacency and cowardice of a centre that lives in fear of the extremes.”
One issue he refuses to be complacent or silent about is that anti-Zionism is antisemitism. Here he is taking on many in his own Democratic Party who see Israel and Palestine through the prism of identity politics and anti-colonialism. Such simplism allows them to easily identify, without having to engage their critical faculties, the good guys and the bad guys: (clearly) it’s white Jews oppressing indigenous people of colour. That Torres is black adds power to his argument. That he is not college educated, where such views are imbibed, may make him more clear-sighted.
“Anti-Zionism is the latest mutation in the ancient DNA of antisemitism. But that is not a belief that’s widely held.
“We have institutions in the Anglo-American world that promote anti-Zionism while denying that it has anything to do with antisemitism.
“And for me, the greatest manifestation of anti-Zionism is antisemitism is October 7, Hamas, both anti-Zionists and antisemitic and seeks the destruction of the Jewish people in the Jewish state.”
Few organisations do more to promote anti-Zionism in public life than the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) whose “socialist superstar” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also represents the Bronx in Congress. Torres, who was raised in social housing, and AOC, who was raised in affluent Westchester, are a microcosm of the modern Democratic Party. The working class hero with views that resonate with the electorate versus the college-educated radical who wants to defund the police. By taking on the DSA and its anti-Zionism, Torres is also engaging in a fight for the very soul and survival of his party.
He cites a pledge it asked its members to sign to never travel to Israel and to support BDS.
“In the Democratic Socialist worldview, it is permissible to travel to China, which is committing genocide against Uyghurs Muslims to travel to Russia, which has invaded the sovereign nation state of Ukraine, to travel to Iran, which is the leading sponsor of terrorism in the world, to travel to North Korea, which is essentially a totalitarian state. But travel to the world’s only Jewish state is strictly forbidden.
Representative Ritchie Torres, a Democrat from New York, speaks at a House Financial Services Committee (Photo by Al Drago-Pool/Getty Images)
“If that is not evidence of anti-Zionism as antisemitism, then I’m not sure what would be.”
But he also warns that Republicans, currently blocking an aid package for Israel, are increasingly hostile to the country.
“We’ve seen the rise of anti-Zionism on the left, but increasingly we’re seeing the rise of America First isolationism on the far right, which is no friend of the US-Israel relationship.”
If antisemitism is a fear of the human condition that makes antisemites fear themselves, liberty and society, as Sartre postulated, it might explain why it triggers Torres.
He has triumphed over the fears lurking in the darkest recesses of his own human condition. Emerging self-assured to seize the opportunities that, he admits, a not-perfect Western society has to offer. Those who hate him most have perhaps the most to learn from his example. They have been taught to fear and loathe America and, by extension, themselves. The rest of us should be grateful to him for putting his life on the line to defend the values we cherish.