By Alex Kane

ON MAY 13TH, three days after Israel began its most recent bombing campaign of the Gaza Strip, a group of progressive legislators gathered on the floor of the House of Representatives for an unprecedented session. Dispersed across the mostly-empty chamber in accordance with Covid protocols, the lawmakers—including most members of the group of legislators of color known as “the Squad”—rose one by one to express a position that only recently had seemed politically marginal: support for placing conditions on the military aid that the US sends to Israel, so that it cannot fund violence against Palestinians. The speakers explained this stance in terms never before uttered in Congress. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the first Palestinian American woman in the body’s history, admonished her colleagues, who she said had a “duty to end the apartheid system that for decades has subjected Palestinians to inhumane treatment and racism.” Rep. Cori Bush connected the suffering of Palestinians to the racism experienced by Black Americans. “Palestinians know what state violence, militarized policing and occupation of their communities look like,” said Bush, who first rose to prominence as a Black Lives Matter organizer in Ferguson, Missouri. “So when heavily militarized police forces showed up in Ferguson in 2014 . . . our St. Louis Palestinian community, our Palestinian siblings, showed up too.

....As the landscape of Democratic rhetoric on Israel has shifted, Bronx Congressman Ritchie Torres has attempted to stay planted in place. An Afro-Latino millennial who represents the most impoverished district in the country, Torres draws comparisons to his fellow New Yorker Ocasio-Cortez. But the day after the Squad’s speeches went viral, he took to the House floor to defend Israel’s attack on Gaza instead. He focused his remarks on “the trauma of Israelis seeking refuge in bomb shelters in the face of relentless rocket fire.” When he acknowledged the deaths of Palestinians, he attributed them to “the wretchedness of war” rather than the Israeli bombs falling on Gaza. He also took time to criticize a New York state assemblywoman backed by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), Phara Souffrant Forrest, lambasting her for tweeting a map of Palestine that predated the existence of Israel, which he likened to “wiping Israel off the map.”

....Even as Torres’s standing rose in progressive circles, he began to build relationships with Israel-advocacy groups. In 2015, he agreed to join a trip to Israel for New York lawmakers planned by the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York and the UJA-Federation of New York. The junket attracted the attention of Palestinian rights activists, and a coalition that included groups like Jewish Voice for Peace, Al-Awda NY, the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence, and Queers Against Israeli Apartheid tried to pressure the politicians to cancel it. Torres’s office initially agreed to a meeting with some of the activists, according to Emmaia Gelman, a member of Queers Against Israeli Apartheid, but canceled it shortly before it was supposed to take place. Instead of sitting down with the activists, Torres delivered his answer to their request through the media. “What would be the purpose of a dialogue?” he responded when a reporter for Gay City News raised the issue of the trip’s critics. Torres’s most prominent encounter with the activists occurred at the protests they staged outside City Hall. The councilman later described the tone of the protests as “vitriolic,” recalling in an interview with Jewish Insider that some activists had accused him of pinkwashing, a word that refers to the strategy of raising Israel’s record on LGBTQ rights to deflect from its human rights abuses. As if to illustrate their point, he told a story about passing an activist whose shirt read “Queers for Palestine” and responding: “Does the opposite exist? Are there Palestinians for queers?”

In the end, the trip to Israel did little to dent Torres’s reputation. At the time, he was better known as the lead sponsor of the Right to Know Act, a legislative package designed to rein in the abuses of the New York Police Department. Endorsed by over 200 organizations and prominent family members of people killed by New York law enforcement, it would have required officers to provide reasons for many types of stops, and, when a stop did not result in an arrest or summons, to give out a business card bearing their name and rank as well as the phone number for complaints about law enforcement conduct. Police reform organizers had tapped Torres to carry the bill in 2014: As a young, talented legislator of color from a neighborhood where police abuse and brutality were commonplace, he seemed to be the ideal candidate to secure its passage. “We trusted him,” said Rachel McCullough, political director of Jews for Racial & Economic Justice (JFREJ), a key backer of the Right to Know Act. “We recognized that this guy really gets it, he’s committed, he’s ready to do what it takes.”

But even as Torres worked with activists to shepherd the bill, he was also, unbeknownst to them, negotiating with Mayor Bill de Blasio and the NYPD. In December 2017, the Bronx councilman struck a deal behind closed doors, agreeing to revise the bill so that NYPD officers would no longer be required to ID themselves during the majority of police stops, including traffic stops. His allies were shocked. “Caving to the NYPD is a pastime in New York City politics, but he was in relationship with us and those families in a way the others never were,” said McCullough. Three years later, during Torres’s run for Congress, 12 family members of men killed by police in New York would author an open letter urging voters to reject his candidacy. “The people of the 15th Congressional District deserve a real leader,” the family members wrote, “not one, like Ritchie Torres, who will bend to the political winds and collude behind your backs with the NYPD and betray families whose loved ones were murdered by police.”

Read the full story at Jewish Currents.