Photo Credit: Courtesy
Rep. Torres at a demonstration

Congressman Ritchie Torres is the U.S. Representative for New York’s 15th Congressional District, which is in the South Bronx. In 2013, at age 24 he was the youngest person elected to New York City Council. He spoke candidly with The Jewish Press about his struggles growing up in the projects, his views on Israel and the BDS movement, and U.S. policy concerning the Ukrainian-Russian war.

 

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The Jewish Press: Tell us a little about yourself. Where did you grow up and how did you enter into politics?

Torres: I was born and raised in the Bronx; I spent almost all my life in poverty. I was raised by a single mother who raised all of us on a minimum wage, which in the 1990s was about $4.25 an hour. And the most horrendous experience of my life was growing up in public housing, which in New York City has been so chronically underfunded. I grew up in conditions of mold and mildew, leaks, lead and vermin, with no consistent heat or water in the winter. So I got my start in politics as a housing organizer, with a particular focus on public housing.

I just turned 34, which is a milestone for me because the first time I ran for public office was at age 24. I took a leap of faith and ran for public office. I had no deep pockets or ties to the party machine in Bronx politics, but I was young and energetic and I spent a whole year knocking on doors. I went into people’s homes and I heard their stories, and I became the first elected openly LGBTQ official from the Bronx. What’s remarkable is that 15 years ago I was at the lowest point in my life. I had dropped out of college because I was struggling with depression, I found myself abusing substances, and I lost my best friend to a fatal overdose. There were moments when I thought of taking my own life because I thought the world around me had crumbled. And so I never thought seven years later I would become the youngest elected official in the largest city in America, and then today a United States congressman. So there’s a sense of which I feel like I am living the realization of the American dream.

Thank you for sharing about your struggle with depression. Many Jews struggle with this as well and it helps to hear others share their experiences. How are we doing addressing mental health issues as a society?

There is no issue we neglect more than mental health and we neglect it at our own peril. The mentally ill are often left to languish in prisons and in subways and on the streets. We have to recognize that there is a subset of people whose mental illness is so severe it requires inpatient psychiatric care. Unfortunately, in the U.S. we have a shortage of psychiatric beds.

Our country is dealing with rising crime and a homeless crisis in our major cities. It is known that many of the homeless have some form of mental illness, and that a lot of the violent criminal behavior on the streets is being caused by the mentally ill. In New York City’s Jewish community, we have experienced unspeakable acts of violence. Violent crime against Jews is up 300 percent over this time last year. At an emergency meeting called by Mayor Adams earlier this month, our community leaders acknowledged a lot of these attacks are being perpetrated by the mentally ill.

In fact, mental illness is one of the root causes of chronic homelessness, chronic violence, chronic addiction and chronic hospitalizations, and it would save our society far more to treat severe mental illness than to tackle all the problems that it causes. Sadly, Rikers Island is one of the largest providers of mental health care in the country.

You refer to yourself as “the embodiment of a pro-Israel progressive.” What exactly does that mean?

Circulating in our politics is a false narrative that you cannot be both progressive and pro-Israel, which I believe is untrue. There is no greater example of progress in the Middle East than Israel, and no country in the middle east is more protective of minority rights. It’s a bona fide democracy. So I’m on a mission to challenge the idea that you cannot be both progressive and pro-Israel. I’m a person of intersecting identities. I’m Latino, Black, gay, millennial, from The Bronx, and I’m pro-Israel not despite my progressive values but because of my values, and I refuse to concede the terms of the debate to BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions of Israel Movement).

We’ve heard the anti-Israel rhetoric from NY Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) and other members of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, so your stance is truly remarkable. When you visited Israel, what impressed you the most?

Israel is one of a kind – at once modern and ancient. I’m amazed by the Old City, home to the most devout Jews and Christians and Muslims. I saw the ashes of the destruction of the Second Temple nearly 2,000 years ago. I’ve been to Israel on three occasions: twice as a City Council member and most recently as a congressman, and this time I left Israel even more worried about its security than I had been before. As you know, Hamas fired 4,000 rockets in a span of 11 days and Hezbollah could easily fire 1,000 rockets in a single day, which could overwhelm the capacity of the Iron Dome. And I’m concerned that in conflict with Hezbollah there are not enough interceptors to [intercept] every single attack, and Israel would have to prioritize protecting critical infrastructure and this could ultimately lead to residential neighborhoods open to rocket fire. And Hezbollah has 200 thousand missiles at its disposal, which is more missiles than every NATO country except the U.S. has, combined. Also, for the first time I took a tour of a terror tunnel that Hezbollah spent years and millions of dollars constructing, all for the sole purpose of kidnapping and murdering Israelis. And so the hate that Hezbollah has for Israel runs so deep that it spent ten years constructing a single tunnel in order to carry out surprise attacks of terrorism.

Why do you think the BDS movement had gained such ground in the U.S. – despite the fact that it is targeting the only democracy in the Middle East?

The U.S. is surrounded by two oceans and peaceful neighbors, whereas Israel is largely surrounded by hostile neighbors, whether it be Hamas in the Gaza Strip or Hezbollah in Lebanon, or the Assad regime in Syria – which in fact means Israel is essentially sharing a border with Russia, which has established a presence in Syria. Most Americans have no concept of the volatile security situation in Israel. None of us have to live with the relentless threat of rocket fire, none of us have to live in a neighborhood where the bus stops have to double as bomb shelters. There’s nothing in the American experience that is remotely comparable to the insecurity that Israel must face every day. What is frustrating for me are the critics here in the U.S who rush to pass the harshest judgment on Israel, before they come out of their ivory towers to actually travel to Israel and see the facts with their own eyes. Because when you see the reality on the ground, you come to discover that the facts are more complicated than the simple-minded narratives percolating on social media.

In current events, we are witnessing a war in Europe on a scale not seen since World War II. How impressed are you by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and the Ukrainian military in their battle against the Russians for their homeland?

Zelensky is a source of pride for all of us, but especially for the Jewish community. There are only two Jewish heads of state in the world and one of them is Zelensky. And he is an inspiration, the single greatest profile in courage in the world, and when he spoke to members of congress [on March 16] he received a standing ovation from every single member, both Republicans and Democrats. His message was simple: that Ukrainians want to live every bit as freely and safely as Americans do. And in a sense, the Ukrainians are not just fighting for themselves but they are fighting for all of us – for the success of a democratic world.

If Russia manages to take over Ukraine, there is no reason to think that Putin will stop there. He will keep expanding westward. So, we must do everything we can to hold his regime accountable. I’m in favor of providing more arms, financing and training, javelins, stingers and the MIGS. President Zelensky made it clear the most single biggest contribution we could make to the war effort is sending those fighter jets so that his army could have a fighting chance of overcoming the aerial assaults from Russia.

It’s been suggested that during the 2021 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China and Russia made a commitment to work together to counter what they see as a weakened West. We also know China has ambitions of its own to take control of Taiwan, and they’re most likely watching closely the world’s response to Russia in this war. What is our message to China if they decide to take action against Taiwan?

There is a powerful struggle between democracy and autocracy in the world. And if Russia is allowed to conquer Ukraine with impunity, then China will feel emboldened to do the same in relation to Taiwan. It’s a moral imperative that the free world rally against Russia to send a message to all authoritarian states including China, that if you invade a free sovereign nation there will be consequences. Our uniform response should send a message to China and to every country that threatens invasion.

The war has highlighted U.S. and European dependence on foreign energy sources, particularly our reliance on these sources to provide oil, as opposed to our being energy independent. You are in support of the Green New Deal and on measures to protect the environment. Still, do you think the argument is being made for less reliance on foreign entities when it comes to our energy consumption?

Oil and gas are among the most volatile sectors in the U.S. economy. Lately we are at the mercy of skyrocketing oil and gas prices, which is one of the dominant drivers of inflation at the moment, so the sooner we transition to a clean energy economy the better, but keep in mind the real issue here is not a lack of energy independence on the part of the U.S.; it’s a lack of energy independence on the part of Europe. We have virtually no dependency on Russia to meet our energy needs, whereas almost half of Europe’s oil and gas comes from Russia – so that dependency is what prevents us from imposing much broader energy sanctions on Russia. The U.S. has imposed a ban on oil and gas imports but Russia primarily generates oil and gas revenue from countries like Germany. And Germany made a miscalculation in closing its nuclear power plants because it made it more dependent on Russia.

I sense that Europe is genuinely determined to wean itself off Russian oil and gas because it now sees energy dependency on Russia as a national security threat, and rightly so. Russia is in a position to weaponize European dependency on oil and gas against the European economy. And right now, that dependency is what’s financing the Russian war machine against Ukraine.

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Baruch Lytle is a Jewish Press staff writer.