NEW YORK — He’s Puerto Rican, culturally Christian, a member of the Progressive Caucus, and — until this term — barely had a Jewish constituency to speak of.
But Rep. Ritchie Torres can say it: “There are few people in American politics who have been as visibly and vocally supportive of Israel as I’ve been.”
Dozens of progressive activists protested outside Torres’ district office for a “Bronx Solidarity with Palestine” rally Tuesday, accusing the Democrat of focusing too much on Israel, and not on his district, the poorest in the country.
Torres has promulgated “hate-rhetoric” against constituents critical of Israel, a spokesperson for Bronx Anti-War Coalition said in a statement to POLITICO. He has “long chosen to be a notably visible spokesperson for defending Israeli ethnic cleansing against the Palestinian people.”
At the same time, hundreds of Torres’ Jewish constituents — many of them students from the Modern Orthodox SAR Academy, told to come after school — attended a counter-rally in Riverdale, in the Bronx, on the other side of the district, praising Torres for his support.
“We have to stand with our Congressman Ritchie Torres as he fights for us and fights for Israel and fights against antisemitism,” Assemblymember Jeff Dinowitz, who’s Jewish, said at the rally.
Torres was ardently defending Israel well before he ran for Congress, but now in office, donors have appreciated the support. Despite running uncontested, he received more campaign contributions last cycle from pro-Israel sources than any New York member other than House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries.
Torres was in Washington during the Bronx rally, but he’s been everywhere in the news, and particularly on social media sites like X, speaking out for Israel and against its critics since Hamas attacked the country earlier this month.
Torres believes in a two-state solution, but rejects a cease-fire, he said in an interview with POLITICO. “Israel has every right to do to Hamas what the United States did to ISIS and al Qaeda.”
The interview is edited for length and clarity.
Jeff Coltin: You have a notable Jewish population in your district now, since 2023. But your vocal support for Israel preceded that redistricting. How did that become so central to your politics?
Ritchie Torres: From my first year in the [New York] City Council, I was invited by the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York to go on a delegation to Israel [in 2015]. It was the first time I had an opportunity to travel abroad. And my experience in Israel was love at first sight. It was one of the most formative and transformative experiences of my life. I was deeply affected by my experience of Yad Vashem [the Holocaust memorial] and Masada [a kibbutz] and Sderot, which is one of the civilian communities along the Gaza border. And so, my pro-Israel advocacy is based on a decade of engaging deeply with the subject of Israel.
Coltin: Are you personally religious?
Torres: No, my belief in Israel as a Jewish state is based not on religion, but history. There’s a long and ugly history of antisemitism. When you study the history, you begin to see clearly the moral and historical necessity of Israel as a sanctuary for the Jewish people.
Coltin: Have you considered converting to Judaism?
Torres: No. I am a Zionist, but I’m culturally Christian and intend to remain culturally Christian for the foreseeable future. I have no intention of converting to a faith. My Zionism has nothing to do with religion, at all.
Coltin: You’ve gotten a lot of pushback — and you never just take the criticism without responding.
Torres: I’m a fighter from the Bronx. I’m pugnacious. And I will fight for what I believe in, I will fight for what I think is right.
Coltin: You’ve been criticized, especially in the past couple weeks, for focusing too much on Israel in public statements and on Twitter.
Torres: Anyone who is mistaking Twitter for the real world is living in an echo chamber. The majority of my constituents in the Bronx are not on Twitter. And I can assure you that I am far more ubiquitous in The Bronx Times and on News 12 The Bronx than just about any elected official in the Bronx.
On Oct. 7, (the day Hamas attacked Israel) I was in Puerto Rico. And I was not on vacation, I was receiving a briefing about the state of the energy grid. … I regard it as the worst infrastructure crisis in America.
Coltin: I’ve heard you talk about crime in your district, and the issues of divestment and deprivation. Many progressives apply that same lens to the conflict in Israel and see it as a class-based conflict and find an explanation, or an excuse, for the hatred and the violence. Do you see the same factors at play?
Torres: Imagine a mother whose baby has been butchered to death. I cannot imagine anything more callous and cold hearted and cruel than telling that mother “you had this coming. You and your people brought this terror upon yourself.” For me, this is not about geopolitics. This is not about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is about human decency. It is indecent to blame the victims of terrorism rather than the terrorists themselves.
Coltin: An adviser of yours told me there are people looking to show their appreciation for your support, and that includes campaign donations. How much have you raised since the beginning of the month?
Torres: It’s been an outpouring of phone calls and messages on Twitter and Instagram and Facebook and elsewhere. And the rally was itself an outpouring of support. No comment (on the fundraising).
Coltin: Some pro-Israel groups are supporting a challenge to Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.). Have you had any discussions with them, and would you consider supporting Westchester County Executive George Latimer for that seat?
Torres: I would never weigh in against a colleague unless a colleague weighed in against me. I have a rule of reciprocity. Bowman and I have a good relationship.