Freshman Democrat Congressman’s Lessons on Engaging Progressives with Zionism

Rep. Torres looking to be a problem solver, not a performer, in cultivating allies in the South Bronx, in Congress and abroad.
June 30, 2021
Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-NY) speaks at a press conference endorsing New York City Mayoral candidate Andrew Yang on January 14, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

A young member of Congress has emerged as an outspoken ally of Israel during its most recent tumultuous days.

Congressman Ritchie Torres is a name that is becoming more and more associated not just with supporting Israel, but also embracing Israel as part of a progressive political platform. He’s a Democrat from the Bronx, but hardly on the political fringes.

Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles said during a recent Shabbat sermon that “being an ally with Israel is not a republican-only or democrat-only issue,” and specifically pointed out that Congressman Torres has a special understanding of this.

Torres is not someone who was deliberately groomed to be elected. He did not go to elite private schools, he did not grow up with privilege, and he certainly did not hobnob with the wealthy. In fact, during his formative years, he endured frequent harassment, hunger, and mental health issues.

Torres is not someone who was deliberately groomed to be elected. He did not go to elite private schools, he did not grow up with privilege, and he certainly did not hobnob with the wealthy.

“Thirteen years ago, I was at the lowest point of my life. I had dropped out of college, found myself struggling with depression, and abusing substances,” Congressman Ritchie Torres shared, from his district office in the South Bronx. “I feel an obligation to tell my story and break the shame, the silence and the stigma that too often surrounds mental health. People should know that there’s a member of Congress who struggles with depression, taking an antidepressant that enables me to be a productive and effective public servant.”

He has come a long way since that low time. Today, he represents the 15th Congressional District of New York—the part of town in which he grew up. This section of the Bronx is just north of the Harlem River from Manhattan, and is said to be the poorest Congressional district in America. It’s also home to the $2.3 billion Yankee Stadium.

What sets Torres apart from so many of his colleagues in Congress is how open he is about his upbringing, which was anything but easy.

He is Afro-Latino, with a Puerto Rican father who had no presence in his life, and has an African-American mother who raised Torres with his twin brother and sister. They lived in public housing that was plagued with mold and disrepair.

Outside, the neighborhood was rife with drugs and crime—shootings so frequent that the community became desensitized to the horror. He lost a best friend to a fatal opioid overdose. Torres himself came out as gay in his 20s. There were even moments, he explains, when he wanted to take his own life because he felt as if the world around him had collapsed.

Torres found solace and purpose in being open about his struggles with mental health. Eventually, he found a job (and a mentor) on the staff of New York City Council member James Vacca. There, Torres worked on housing issues in the Bronx, seeking to help out his impoverished section of New York City.

Torres found solace and purpose in being open about his struggles with mental health.

Eventually, at age 25, Torres himself became the youngest member ever elected to the New York City Council. And the community took notice of his spirited work.

“Ritchie is still the same passionate, thoughtful, and hard-working young man that I met a decade ago as a housing organizer,” said Marjorie Velazquez, a Bronx-native, community organizer and local politician. “He’s a fighter. From fighting for New York City Housing Authority residents, to championing women’s issues at the Council, to advocating for [Puerto Ricans], Ritchie is someone who is not afraid to be independent, and is an inspiration to our future trailblazers in the Bronx.”

In his own view, Torres brings to politics two specific qualities. The first is empathy.

“I know what it’s like to experience food insecurity and housing insecurity, to experience racism, colorism and homophobia,” he says. “These are not abstractions to me, these are struggles that I have seen in my life. The experience taught me empathy.”

The second quality that Torres says he brings to politics is preparedness. An upbringing full of harassment, hunger, and health issues has prepared him well for the inevitably overwhelming task of being not just a Congressman, but an effective policy-maker.

Torres, 33, comes from a new generation of government officials whose first plunge into political awareness occurred on September 11, 2001. Torres is the fourth youngest member of the House of Representatives, and one of only 21 members of Congress who were of high school age or younger on that day.

“I was in my junior high school drama class when all of a sudden parents began taking their children out of the classroom. There was a scene of panic and pandemonium,” he recalls. “Before then, I had no occasion for the world to be politically engaged, to be politically aware. I had a sense of innocence, I had a sense that the United States and New York city were invincible,” he said, adding that it was a rude awakening.

“Rude awakening” is also how he describes his experience on Capitol Hill on January 6, 2021—only three days after being sworn in on January 3, the U.S. Capitol was besieged by violent protestors at the seeming behest of the outgoing President.

Torres describes, “just a shock of not believing what was unfolding in front of me. How could a violent mob so easily invade the U.S. Capitol and terrorize members of congress and their staff?”

The moment reminded him of the shock and peril he endured on 9/11 (while he firmly points out that the devastation was obviously not equal).

Torres explains (and not in any jocular manner) that he can write a memoir about his first ten days in Congress. On his fourth day in Congress, there was the insurrection. On his tenth day, Torres voted to impeach the 45th President. A week later, the country inaugurated Joe Biden as the 46th.

The time since has been anything but the typical freshman member of Congress experience due to the fallout from the pandemic and insurrection.

Still, Torres’ top priority was to have a fully-operational district office and legislative office from day one. He has done so, but the halls of the House office buildings are eerily quiet these days. Members and staff have extremely limited in-person meetings with constituents and other visitors on Capitol Hill. Torres still hasn’t taken his mother, twin brother, or sister on a tour of the 221-year-old U.S. Capitol.

From left, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, (D-D.C)., Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., Rep. Ritchie Torres, D-N.Y., and Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., sit socially distanced in the visitors gallery in the House chamber for President Joe Biden’s address to a joint session of Congress in the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol April 28, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Caroline Brehman – Pool/Getty Images)

Legislating effectively is a team sport, made possible by wide-scale cooperation and compromise, even though it may seem at times that elected officials just aim for Twitter spats. Torres is one of the members who seeks to forge bonds and be a problem-solver and policy-maker rather than a performer.

Forming those bonds is what effective members do. But it has been tough during the 117th Congress.

Congress, when done correctly, is a collaborative experience. Torres says it’s tough to legislate “without the ability to schmooze freely with your colleagues on the House floor and without the ability to break bread over dinner. Although things are slowly opening up, the pandemic is subverting what he calls “the deep durable relationship building that you need to succeed in Congress.”

Even as a progressive Democrat, Torres says he’s enjoyed the experience of getting to know his Republican colleagues.

When asked about who he has enjoyed working with on the other side of the aisle, he mentions Representative Peter Meijer (R-Michigan), describing him as “fiercely independent” with “immense integrity and courage.” Torres laments that Meijer’s virtues are “hard to come by in politics.”

Still reflecting on the bipartisan question, Torres sits back in his desk chair, smiles and says that he also enjoys working with Republican Representative Andrew Garbarino (R-New York), describing the fellow freshman Congressman as “one of the most down-to-earth people.”

The sentiment is mutual between the two.

“I enjoy working with Congressman Ritchie as well because we have been able to find common ground and work towards that goal together,” Rep. Garbarino said. Garbarino, who holds the congressional seat previously held by the ultra-conservative Rep. Peter King, also says that “it’s very tough to meet colleagues due to the voting rules and COVID rules.”

While forming bonds with fellow members of Congress has been slower than typical, it didn’t stop Torres from hitting the ground running. By his fifth week in office, Torres introduced the American Family Act to expand and improve the Child Tax Credit, which if made permanent, could help reduce child poverty.

It has been all business for Torres. Even though part of the excitement of being a freshman is decorating the office, Torres hasn’t bothered to fill his office with homages to New York’s 15th Congressional district. No photos of Yankee Stadium, no paintings of the Bronx Zoo, no plants from the New York Botanical garden. Maybe in time. But right now, Torres says his highest priority is to see to it that he and his staff are firing from all cylinders.

While he has not had a moment to decorate, he always makes room for moments of awe. His office at 317 Cannon used to belong to John F. Kennedy during his time as a Congressman from Massachusetts. The celebration of history throughout the U.S. Capitol, and DC for that matter, is a reminder to Torres of not just the privilege, but also the hallowed duty to legislate for his fellow Americans.

“When you’re in Congress, you feel the weight of history on your shoulders … part of the same institution that was once home to political giants like Abraham Lincoln.” A piece of advice Torres works by is that “if you stop pinching yourself, if you lose the sense of awe, then it’s time for you to go.”

He hasn’t lost sight of who he is, how far he’s come, and how much he can do for the people.

In the summer of 2020, Torres volunteered with community members in helping The Migrant Kitchen, an Arab-Latin fusion restaurant, to distribute meals to New Yorkers in need. This garnered praise from the restaurant’s owners, Palestinian Nasser Jaber from Ramallah and Dan Dorado, a Mexican-American from Los Angeles. Their staff wear shirts that read “No One Goes Hungry On Our Watch”—a motto fit for Torres as well.

Torres points out that before he was elected in 2020, there were no black or Latino LGBTQ members of Congress. He humbly understands the monumentalism of his election, expressing his overwhelming sense of gratitude. It’s mid-pandemic, there was a tumultuous transition of Presidential power, and recently, one of the United States’ greatest allies is enduring one of their most perilous moments in recent memory—Israel.

Torres is increasingly becoming noticed for his staunch support for Israel as a progressive. He has bravely taken on the contentious, complicated issue, putting him at odds with many in the progressive democratic base.

Even back in his days on the City Council of one of the most progressive cities in the United States, there was a resolution pending about the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement to condemn Israel. He recalls that not a single other member on the Council supported a two-state solution.

“My disposition, which to me is the truly progressive position, is that we should seek the peaceful coexistence of Israelis and Palestinians. Not seek the end of Israel as the solution. And if you favor peaceful coexistence, then you can rightly call yourself a progressive. But if you seek to abolish the only Jewish state, there’s no universe where that could ever be considered progressive.”

As a young elected official, Torres thinks often about the next generation of Americans’ relationship to Israel.

As a young elected official, Torres thinks often about the next generation of Americans’ relationship to Israel. He sees trends on college campuses and across the field of politics that suggest that BDS is becoming a more pervasive orthodoxy within the new left—but again, he repeats over and over his view that “there is nothing progressive about BDS.”

That’s not to say there are no progressive activists who share a similar sentiment—just ask Amanda Berman, founder and executive director of Zioness, a coalition of Jewish activists and allies who describe their work as unabashedly progressive and unapologetically Zionist.

“Ritchie shows all of us that supporting Jewish liberation and Jewish self-determination is totally consistent with our progressive values,” said Berman. “It shouldn’t take the kind of courage that it takes, but [Torres] has been extraordinary. And he’s faced racism, he’s faced homophobia from progressives for standing with the Jewish community. How painful that must be to take on this fight and to be targeted by the people who are supposed to be your colleagues, allies and partners in your work.”

Berman is optimistic that as his first term in Congress continues, Torres will inspire more progressive voices that will ascend into political leadership who are not afraid to reject rigid “with us or against us” litmus tests.

Author Noa Tishby also sees Torres as a model for future progressives. She’s the author of a new book about Israel that’s at the top of the Amazon charts for books about Middle Eastern politics: “Israel: A Simple Guide to the Most Misunderstood Country on Earth.”

“Leaders need to stop being so scared by the Twitter mob,” Tishby says. “Ritchie displays the importance of being right before it’s popular. It’s unfortunate that it requires courage, and he displays it in droves. He understands what Israel is dealing with.”

A common refrain in many of Torres’ recent interviews is his condemnation of antisemitism and extremism.

“It is wrong to politicize antisemitism, you have to speak out against extremism no matter where it comes from,” he says. The BDS movement is moving from the fringe to the mainstream of American politics. American politics, as it is, remain strongly pro-Israel.”

Multiple times Torres refers to the current time in history as America’s “FDR Moment”—a time to stick up for our overseas allies and lift fellow Americans who are the least well off. There’s optimism in the people who have taken notice of Torres’ political philosophy. And Torres himself is still optimistic about the future.

“Every day I’m in awe by the grandeur of the Capitol, by the honor of serving in Congress,” he says. “It is frustrating at times but more fulfilling than frustrating. You only become a public servant if you’re optimistic that you can have an impact at improving the world. I’m hopeful that the long game of politics—the long arc of politics—rewards substance. That’s my fundamental confidence. I hope the end result indicates it. But we’ll see.”

As pandemic restrictions loosen, and Torres can form more in-person working relationships with his colleagues in Congress, the best of his problem-solving remains yet to come.

Brian Fishbach is a music journalist in Los Angeles. 

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