Photo Credit: YouTube
Rep. Torres speaking at Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan in November 2023.

The Second-Term Congressman from the Bronx spoke to The Jewish Press about the benefits of visiting Israel, facing far-left hate, and the future of Israel and Gaza

The Jewish Press: Hi, thank you so much for making time to speak to us. And I know the Jewish community does greatly appreciate your support. It’s been absolutely incredible.


Rep. Torres: Well, that’s too kind, but I appreciate it.

You’ve said that your positive stance toward Israel was heavily shaped by your visit there in 2015. You’ve called it one of the most transformative experiences of your life. Do you think things would be different if more opponents of Israel would actually visit, as you did? And does ignorance about what Israel is about lead to the hostility toward Israel that we are seeing? Or is it just the age-old deep-seated antisemitism rearing its ugly head?

My experience tells me that there’s no substitute for firsthand experience with Israel. It’s the best form of education. And I find that the most vociferous critics of the Jewish State have actually never gone to Israel, and have never seen the facts on the ground with their own eyes.

You know, were it not for my own engagement with Israel, I would have never become a Zionist. I grew up in a community that was almost exclusively Latino and African American; I had no engagement with the Jewish community. And then when I became a [City] Council member in 2014, I was invited by the Jewish Community Relations Council to go on a delegation to Israel. And as you point out, I’ve often described it as one of the most transformative experiences of my life – going to Yad Vashem, going to Masada, going to a place like Sderot. And I remember speaking to the local mayor of Sderot who said that the majority of his children struggle with post-traumatic stress, because families like his live under the threat of rocket fire.

I remember seeing bus stops doubling as bomb shelters. I thought to myself, imagine the sheer trauma of a five-year-old who’s seeking refuge in a bomb shelter while rockets are being fired and sirens are going off and adults are panicking. And there’s nothing but pandemonium. I come from the Bronx where families often live in fear of bullets, gun violence. But no one in the United States lives in fear of rockets; none of us as Americans worry that Mexico and Canada are going to fire rockets into American homes and communities. And so my first trip to Israel enabled me to realize early on that Israel faces a level of insecurity that has no equivalent in the American experience.

And I tell people, “Look, I’m not going to tell you what to think about Israel. But I will tell you how to think: Before you rush to judge Israel, you should actually go there and speak to both Israelis and Palestinians, speak to both Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs, you know, go to a place like Sderot and see the facts on the ground with your own eyes. And I guarantee you that if you have an open heart and an open mind, you’re going to adopt a view of Israel that is far more complicated than the cartoonish portrayal that percolates on social media platforms and on college campuses.

Supporting Israel used to be a consensus issue in the United States. Now we see large numbers of the younger generations, especially on the Democratic side, expressing very anti-Israel views, including gleefully calling for the destruction of Israel – that’s becoming more and more commonplace. How in the world did we get here? What is going on? And where are we headed? Will the support for Israel further erode or will it stay on the margins?

There is nothing accidental about anti-Zionism in America. There has been a concerted effort by movements like BDS to indoctrinate the next generation of Americans with a visceral and fanatical hatred for Israel as a Jewish State. And that’s why in the wake of October 7, we saw young Americans cheering and celebrating October 7. We saw young Americans downplaying and denying October 7. But none of that is an accident – it is the consequence, it is the culmination of a long process of dehumanizing both the Jewish community and the Jewish State.

On Christmas this year, anti-Israel vandals attacked your Bronx office with red paint and a bloodied baby doll. How did you deal with the experience, and have you ever been verbally or physically threatened for positions you’ve taken?

There is no issue on which I face more hate, harassment, and death threats than on the subject of Israel. If anything ever happens to me, if I’m ever assassinated, people should assume that it was likely anti-Zionist activists.

There is no issue in national politics that provokes more raw emotion and rage than the subject of Israel, and it’s been consuming for me because I’ve been the target of overwhelming venom and vitriol from the anti-Israel far left. And as you pointed out, there have been anti-Israel activists who have vandalized my office with red paint., claiming that I have blood on my hands. There have been anti-Israel activists who have who have installed posters throughout the New York City subway system, accusing me of bombing hospitals and killing healthcare workers, calling me a genocide enabler.

So I’m facing a level of character assassination that I’ve never seen in my life, and never thought I would ever see.

Do you support to continuous funding from the United States to the PA?

I would support funding for humanitarian assistance, but I strongly oppose funding for UNRWA. And I strongly oppose funding for pay-for-slay.

But perhaps if they could find a more moderate government there then things could change?

There’s been a fundamental failure of Palestinian leadership. Between a terrorist theocracy in the form of Hamas and a kleptocracy in the form of the Palestinian Authority, Palestinians are utterly lacking leadership.

What would you like to see post-war in terms of Israeli government and the government of Gaza?

What I want to see is the de-Hamasification of Gaza, the removal of Hamas from power, the de-radicalization of Palestinian civil society and replacement of Hamas with a regime that’s able and willing to make peace with Israel. If we can find a regime that brokers peace with Israel, it would be a game-changer in the Gaza Strip.

But Israel cannot do it alone. Israel has got be in partnership with the United States and with the Sunni Arab world, particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE. And so it’s going to have to be a collective effort.

Do you have any moderate names in mind among the Palestinians that could take on that mantle?

As I said, there’s a leadership crisis in the Palestinian national movement. I’m aware of no leader who can rise to the challenge. But I hope that I’m pleasantly surprised.

Yours is a great American success story, one which does not include a college degree. A boy from the projects who built a successful political career. Today, as you know, antisemitism, some of it disguised as anti-Zionism, is raging on college campuses now. And university leaders, as we’ve seen, have been thoroughly derelict. What does this say about the future of university education? Is the academy losing its luster? And what can we expect from Generation Z who are being steeped in this environment when they take the reins tomorrow?

When people ask me why [I am] so pro-Israel, I tell them it’s because I dropped out of college. I did not graduate from Harvard or MIT or UPenn. But I did graduate from the school of moral common sense. I’m a common sense public servant.

You know, the congressional hearing on antisemitism left a profound impression on me. If you had asked the average Bronx resident, “Is calling for a genocide of Jews harassment?,” there’s no doubt in my mind that the average Bronx resident would tell you, “Of course it’s harassment!” But if you ask an academic or an activist is calling for genocide of Jews “harassment,” the response you will get is a coldly legalistic formulaic response. It’s quote, unquote “context dependent.”

And it seems to me that the loss of moral common sense is not a bug but a feature of what higher education has become. There is a deep rot of antisemitism and anti-Zionism at the core of the higher education industrial complex. And history tells us that higher education is often a breeding ground for antisemitism. Germany was the most educated society on Earth in the early 20th century, before committing the Holocaust. And so higher education is no guarantee of virtue.


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