Editors Notes: How to create more pro-Israel progressives

Ritchie Torres makes an unlikely poster child for pro-Israel America.

The Democratic congressman, whose New York district – the poorest in the state and one of the poorest in the country – includes a large chunk of the Bronx, was born in 1988, the child of a Puerto Rican father and an African American mother. He was raised by his single mother under what he calls “slum conditions” and was bullied mercilessly in school. He attended New York University but dropped out due to depression tied to suicidal thoughts due to his sexual identity. He soon started interning for a member of the New York City Council.

In 2013, at the age of 25, he ran for city council and won, becoming the youngest elected official in the city and the first openly LGBTQ person to represent the Bronx. In 2019, he announced his candidacy to replace retiring Congressman José Serrano and he won a year later, becoming one of the first two gay African Americans ever to serve in Congress.

Since entering Congress, Torres has stood out as one of the most passionately pro-Israel politicians in America. In his public addresses, legislative activity, tweets, media appearances, smaller conversations, and everywhere else, he has consistently and forcefully stood up for Israel’s right to defend itself, advocated for the continuation of US aid to Israel, lauded the US-Israel relationship, called for the expansion of the Abraham Accords, and lambasted anti-Zionism as a contemporary form of antisemitism. His positions have made him a darling of the Jewish community and a target of some in the progressive camp of which he is a part.

I spoke to Torres together with my Jerusalem Post colleague Lahav Harkov two weeks ago and asked him how he came to hold his current views on Israel and the US-Israel alliance.

 Representative Ritchie Torres speaks during the House Financial Services Committee hearing in Washington, US, September 30, 2021.  (credit: Al Drago/Pool via REUTERS) Representative Ritchie Torres speaks during the House Financial Services Committee hearing in Washington, US, September 30, 2021. (credit: Al Drago/Pool via REUTERS)

“When I first entered elected office about a decade ago, I had no real knowledge of Israel or the region,” he told us. “I was almost a blank slate. And then I was invited by the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York to go on a delegation to Israel. And when I went to Israel, and when I saw the facts on the ground with my own eyes, the experience was both formative and transformative.”

“When I went to Israel, and when I saw the facts on the ground with my own eyes, the experience was both formative and transformative.”

Congressman Ritchie Torres

“I was deeply affected by the experience of Yad Vashem and Masada and going to a place like Sderot, which lives under the threat of constant rocket fire,” he said. “I was struck when I saw the bus stops doubling as bomb shelters.”

Torres related a conversation he had with the mayor of Sderot, in which he learned that a majority of the city’s children suffer from post-traumatic stress.

“I imagined to myself for a moment the sheer trauma of a five-year-old child seeking refuge in a bomb shelter as sirens are going off and as rockets are being fired,” he said.

“You know,” he continued, “I represent the Bronx, which is one of the poorest congressional districts in America, and I have constituents who live in fear of bullets, of guns. But there’s no one in the United States who lives in fear of rockets. We have no worry that Mexico or Canada is going to fire 5,000 rockets into the mainland United States. And so I came to realize that Israel faces a level of insecurity and volatility that has no equivalent in the American experience, and I emerged from that first trip with a deeper empathy for the unique security situation of Israel.”

Torres said that he encourages everyone who will listen to visit Israel and see the reality in the country themselves before formulating their views.

“I often tell my friends, before you rush to judgment, you should travel to Israel,” he told us. “You should speak to both Israelis and Palestinians, you should speak to both Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs. You should see the facts on the ground with your own eyes, and then come to a conclusion. And you will realize that the reality of Israel is far more complicated than the caricature that often prevails on social media.”

The congressman went on to slam the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Movement against Israel. “We live in a political universe where the Sunni Arab world is moving in the direction of legitimizing Israel, and the West is moving the direction of delegitimizing Israel,” he said. “I find that college campuses are increasingly indoctrinating students with a hatred for Israel and I see anti-Zionism as a 21st century mutation in the DNA of antisemitism.”

“One need not be Jewish or Israeli to see clearly the antisemitic double standard against Israel,” he said. He went on to list gross abusers of human rights – including China, Russia, and others – against which there are no comparable boycott movements.

“If the selective delegitimization of Israel is not explained by antisemitism, then what explains it?” He asked. “I’ve never heard a compelling answer to that question because none exist.”

A group of 24 Democrat members of Congress visits Israel

I was reminded of our conversation this week, as 24 freshman Democratic members of Congress led by House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries and former House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer visit Israel under the auspices of the American Israel Education Foundation (AIEF), a charitable organization affiliated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). This is Jeffries’ second visit to Israel this year; it is Hoyer’s 20th time visiting the Jewish state. A similar AIEF delegation composed of Republican freshman members will be coming to Israel in November, led by Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy. In previous years, Democratic and Republican members have traveled to Israel together under bipartisan congressional leadership.

A person closely familiar with these trips told me that there are often young members of Congress who apply for their first-ever passports before they participate; this is their first time traveling outside the United States.

Participants from both sides of the aisle return to America, and to Congress, with a newfound appreciation of Israel, of its unique security challenges, and of the importance of the US-Israel relationship – and they vote accordingly.

The pro-Israel community engages in a great deal of hand-wringing over the Squad, a small band of young progressive lawmakers united by their deep hostility to Israel. In the days leading up to Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s recent address to Congress, for example, the media breathlessly reported about every Squad member who announced his or her intention to boycott the speech and speculated furiously about who else would be absent.

In the end, though, only seven progressive legislators – six members of the Squad, plus Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont – confirmed that they did not attend Herzog’s address for political reasons. That’s seven out of 535 members of Congress or slightly more than one percent.

Shortly before the speech, a House resolution asserting that Israel is not a racist state – which came after remarks by Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal suggesting that it is – and declaring that the United States “will always be a staunch partner and supporter of Israel” passed by a vote of 412 to nine. Jayapal herself voted in favor.

The reality is that Congress – including the large majority of the Democratic Caucus – is overwhelmingly pro-Israel. There are many reasons for that, most notable among them that America itself is overwhelmingly pro-Israel: surveys consistently show that Americans back Israel, support the US-Israel relationship, and regard the Jewish state as a close ally in massive numbers. Being pro-Israel is simply good politics, and it is one of the only truly bipartisan causes in America today.

But one cannot ignore the critical importance of visiting Israel in fostering lawmakers’ support for Israel. Groups hostile to Israel have grumbled that the Jewish state is the country most visited by members of Congress (which, according to congressional records, it appears to be). They hate these trips for exactly the same reason supporters of Israel love them: because they open participants’ eyes to the reality on the ground and make them more likely to understand and support the Jewish state.

Like Torres, numerous progressive members of Congress traveled to Israel with AIEF, local Jewish groups, and others early on in their political careers, and the overwhelming majority of them now align themselves with their party’s broad support for the US-Israel relationship. It’s an experience that works.

At the end of our podcast conversation, I asked Torres how the pro-Israel community can create more pro-Israel progressives like him.

“There’s no substitute for traveling to Israel and experiencing the country firsthand in all its diversity and complexity,” he reiterated, noting that greater education in Israel is critical. “There are far too many people in American politics who are quick to render judgment on Israel without actually knowing much about the country, without actually having gone to the country or studied in depth, and there’s far more emotion than knowledge on the subject.”

“So I would recommend just more education and more outreach to members of Congress, and encouraging them to travel to Israel,” he concluded.

Amen, Congressman. Amen.

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