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‘We Cannot Take for Granted’ Support for US-Israel Ties, Argues Progressive Congressman Torres in Interview

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Congressman Ritchie Torres endorses Andrew Yang for his candidacy for Mayor of New York City on Morningside Drive in New York on January 14, 2021. Photo: Lev Radin/Sipa USA

Despite a history of left-wing Zionism in the United States, a growing strand of anti-Israel sentiment among progressives is cause for concern, according to US Congressman Ritchie Torres, who joined Algemeiner supporters for a March 22 conversation with editor-in-chief Dovid Efune.

A rising star in the Democratic party, Rep. Torres pushed back on the notion that his posture as a pro-Israel progressive was an anomaly. “I think there’s a long tradition of Zionism on the left; the most notable example was Dr. Martin Luther King, a supporter of the Jewish state,” he said. “I would argue that anti-Zionism on the left is a recent development — and it’s an anomaly by historical standards.”

Born and raised to a single mother in the Bronx, Torres became New York City’s youngest elected official in in 2014, at 25 years old, after winning a City Council seat on a platform of better public housing. In 2020, he was elected to the House, where he represents New York’s 15th Congressional district.

His first trip out of the country, he said during the March 22 event, was as a council member during a delegation to Israel — a trip that also prompted an early encounter with advocates of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions campaign.

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“They were BDS activists who were specifically targeting me because I was a person of color and because I was LGBTQ, accusing me of ‘pink-washing’ — which is a term I had never heard before,” he said, recounting a protest against him on the steps of City Hall. “That left an impression on me … the intensity of the vitriol directed toward Israel and toward me for attending a delegation to Israel was unlike anything I had ever experienced before.”

Torres described a discussion with an LGBTQ rights activist over whether she supported the Hamas terrorist group, given its persecution of LGBTQ Palestinians. “I never forget what she said to me: she said, ‘Hamas is fighting for the liberation of the Palestinian people.’” Torres recalled. “That moment for me was an illustration of the stupidity and moral bankruptcy and absurdity that this notion of intersectionality has inflicted on progressive politics. And so from that moment onwards, I’ve had a deep interest in the subject of Israel, and I’ve been concerned about the deep strain of antisemitism that I see on the Democratic Socialist left.”

A member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and a one-time Bernie Sanders delegate during the 2016 presidential contest, Torres has found common cause with members of the left wing of the Democratic party on a range of issues.

But while he emphasized that support for Israel remains the “mainstream position” within the party, he admitted that he was not totally optimistic about the future of progressive support for the Jewish state. “It’s hard to say, but I’m concerned about what I see in politics, and what I see in academia. We cannot take for granted support for Israel and the Israeli-American relationship, we have to proactively defend it,” Torres said.

“I’m not despairing; really, the fact that I’m speaking out suggests that I feel like I can have an impact in turning the tide. But there’s reason to be concerned,” he continued.

For Torres, US support for Israel is not only compatible with the progressive worldview, but demanded by it.

“The progressive position is not BDS, the progressive position is to support, in my opinion, a two-state solution,” he said. “BDS seeks the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state. It seeks to deny a historically oppressed people sanctuary, and in no universe can that be considered progressive. Is Israel perfect? No, but no country is perfect. There’s no country in the Middle East more protective of LGBTQ rights and women’s rights, and there has an independent judiciary that has all the features of what we would call a liberal democratic society.”

In 2020, defeating a crowded Democratic primary field vying to replace the retiring Jose Serrano, Torres became — along with fellow New York Democrat Mondaire Jones — the first openly gay Black person elected to Congress. He told The Algemeiner audience that he was not among those worried about ties between the Jewish and African American communities.

“I’ve heard a common refrain that there’s been a breakdown in the relationship, but I’m less concerned about that than others because for me the greatest threat to the Jewish community comes from the extremes — and the extremes, to be blunt, are mostly white. The far-right and the far left are predominantly white,” he said.

“I have not seen, in the African American communities that I represent, a deep strain of anti-Zionism,” he continued. “If anything, the issues that matter in my district are bread and butter issues of health and housing, schools and jobs. The concerns that I have about anti-Zionism and antisemitism mostly come from the extremes of American politics. And I find that those are disproportionately white.”

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