Ritchie Torres, a gay Afro-Latino Democrat from the Bronx, will join Congress next year as a charter member of what might be called the anti-anti-Israel caucus.
Not only did Torres win without the help of the police union or the institutional left, but he also won despite opponents who tried to paint him as a pawn of the Jewish state. Whereas many progressive Democrats are wary of bucking their party’s left flank on Israel, Torres is not. “The progressive position is to promote a Jewish state and a Palestinian state, not to end the existence of Israel as a Jewish state,” he told me.
Torres stands in contrast to Democrats such as Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who last year accused her fellow members of Congress of being more loyal to Israel than to the U.S. Some Democrats initially sought to censure Omar. But in March the Democrat-controlled House failed to pass a resolution formally condemning Omar for her remarks.
In that moment, it was fair to say the Democratic Party had turned a corner. The majority of its members remain supporters of the U.S.-Israel alliance. But after the vote, the party’s tent widened to include representatives who sought to portray Israel as a toxic and apartheid state. Now it’s possible that Democrats are turning a corner again.
For Torres, the journey began with a trip to Israel in 2015 sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. Organizations that support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement against Israel pounced. They protested on the steps of city hall, singling out then-city councilman Torres for “pink-washing” — that is, using Israel’s openness towards LGBTQ citizens to obscure its occupation of Palestinian lands.
“I was blindsided by the reaction,” Torres told me. Before the tour, he hadn’t thought much about Israel. But the “sheer vitriol” of the response made him curious. On the trip, he attended an open house for LGBTQ Israelis in Jerusalem and visited families in Sderot who had endured rocket fire from over the border in Gaza. These experiences led him to conclude that the demonization of the world’s only Jewish state was itself a form of anti-Semitism. Instead of intimidating him, the BDS movement alienated Torres.
The movement’s loss was a gain for pro-Israel Democrats. Mark Mellman, the president of the Democratic Majority for Israel, an advocacy group dedicated to electing pro-Israel Democrats, met with Torres before his primary. “I was blown away,” he told me. “This guy is going to be a superstar.”
Torres, for his part, does not think his position on Israel played a major factor in his primary victory. His constituents, he told me, cared far more about his plans for bringing people out of poverty and affordable housing.
Nonetheless, Torres did not pay a price for his vocal support of Israel in a district that abuts the one represented by Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, a member of the progressive squad of Democrats that entered the House in 2018. The Democratic Socialists of America, the party of AOC and Senator Bernie Sanders, urged 2020 candidates in New York to pledge not to travel to Israel and to endorse the BDS movement.
This kind of pressure politics only emboldened Torres. In August, he tweeted that it was “insane” that the Democratic Socialists decline to affirm that the state of Israel exists. “I am living proof that you can win a fiercely contested primary without catering to the extremes,” he told me. “You can run as a fighter and a problem solver without taking an ideological blood oath or subjecting yourself to a purity test.”
This is very good news for Democrats. The party’s left flank will likely continue to impose an anti-Israel purity test. But now there is a rising progressive star who has proudly resisted this pressure and thrived nonetheless. His name is Ritchie Torres, and on Jan. 3, he will be sworn in as a member of the U.S. Congress.