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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Two young Democratic stars collide over Israel and their party’s future

Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.) during a press briefing to condemn antisemitism on college campuses, at City Hall Park in Manhattan on Oct. 27, 2023.

By Nicholas Fandos

They are among the brightest political stars rising from New York. They were born just months apart, 40 years after the founding of Israel.

And at the most fraught moment for U.S.-Israeli relations in decades, the clashing views of U.S. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ritchie Torres, both Democrats, offer a striking glimpse into the future of one of U.S. politics’ fiercest debates.

Ocasio-Cortez, the left-wing standard-bearer known for her social media mastery, has bucked Democratic orthodoxy since Hamas’ deadly Oct. 7 massacre, using her remarkable reach to build support for a cease-fire and a lasting foreign policy overhaul that puts Palestinians on equal footing with Israelis.

Torres, her lesser-known neighbor in the Bronx, is moving to stake his own claim on the national stage as a fervent pro-Israel foil, aggressively taking on what he perceives as crumbling support for the Jewish state on the left.

The debate between two millennial New Yorkers has fueled conflicts playing out in social media feeds and raucous street protests. It is a struggle not so much over traditional levers of power in Washington, but over who will shape the minds of a younger, diverse generation of voters that will soon steer the relationship to one of America’s closest allies.

And it could have a profound impact on the two politicians’ trajectories. As wartime passions splinter the left, Ocasio-Cortez, whose boosters envision her eventually running for the presidency, is laboring to hold together a consequential but delicate coalition that has pushed the Democratic Party leftward on climate, policing and economics. Torres, who is talked about as a future senator or governor, appears intent on using the moment to smash some of that left-wing movement apart.

“They are two sides of the same coin: young, well-spoken, incredibly smart,” said David Greenfield, an influential Jewish Democrat in New York. “What you are seeing here is really a question of vision for the future of the Democratic Party. Is it going to be the Ritchie Torres version or the AOC version?”

For now, there is little doubt about the United States’ position. Although the Biden administration has pushed for humanitarian “pauses” as Israel’s counteroffensive pummels the Gaza Strip, President Joe Biden and top congressional leaders have repeatedly reaffirmed lockstep support for Israel.

But unlike their parents and grandparents, who watched the country’s tenuous birth and propped it up with weapons and money, Americans who came of age in an era of Israeli military might and taxing foreign wars appear to be up for grabs politically. After a month of carnage, public opinion polls suggest many of them are more sympathetic to the plight of Palestinians and likely to question why the United States is still subsidizing Israel’s defense.

Although Ocasio-Cortez struggled early on to articulate her views on the Middle East, the 34-year-old congresswoman has come to embody that generational shift.

She uses terms such as “apartheid” and “oppression,” which are loathed by Israel’s defenders, to describe the treatment of Palestinians. She also has refused to visit the nation until Israel drops restrictions barring two congressional colleagues. Last week, she called the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the most powerful pro-Israel lobby and one of Torres’ top campaign donors, “racist and bigoted.” And she has poured herself into building pressure on Israel to forgo its campaign in Gaza, pushing further than 420 other members of the House and virtually every senator.

“This is pursuing a proven and failed strategy,” Ocasio-Cortez said in a recent radio interview. “So, why do it, why kill kids, why put people in danger, why perpetuate these cycles when we’ve done it so many times, and it’s never kept us safe?”

Yet, five years after she burst onto the political stage, even some critics say Ocasio-Cortez’s approach has become more nuanced, as she attempts to balance the demands of a leftist movement that holds justice for Palestinians as a key plank and includes large numbers of Jewish voters with varying views on the conflict. (Her own safely Democratic district in Queens and the Bronx is largely Latino, Black and Asian, with only small Jewish and Arab populations.)

Calls for a cease-fire by Ocasio-Cortez and others drew a stern rebuke from the White House, and she faced backlash for voting against a bipartisan resolution that expressed strong support for Israel.

On the other side of the Bronx River, Torres, 35, who is gay and Afro Latino, has staked out a strikingly different project to the right of many of his peers, offering himself as a counterweight to his party’s leftward lurch.

His own social media following is relatively small — 170,000 followers on X, formerly Twitter, to Ocasio-Cortez’s 13.2 million — but the combativeness of Torres’ retorts has stood out. In just the past few days, he compared a cease-fire to asking Israel to “become the author of its own annihilation,” called claims that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza “blood libel” and argued that most Israelis are not actually white, as those who see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a racial struggle claim, but “people of color in the American sense.”

Torres has reserved special vitriol for the Democratic Socialists of America, a small but influential leftist group that has pushed for boycotts of Israel and counts Ocasio-Cortez as a member. In an interview, he said the DSA was trying to infiltrate the Democratic Party “to impose the ideological litmus tests on Israel” and “cleanse” those who disagree with them. He said he was on a “publicly stated mission” to undermine it.

Jeremy Cohan, a leader of the DSA’s New York City chapter, said Torres was unfairly conflating criticism of Israel with antisemitism. “It is opportunistic, it is gross, it is personally offensive to me as a Jew,” he said.

It remains far from clear how many left-leaning Democrats Torres is moving. Even some senior colleagues who agree with him privately worry that his approach may alienate some Black, Latino and other progressive voters at a time when their support is critical.

And yet, his actions have resonated on a visceral level with many American Jews facing one of the most frightening periods since the Holocaust, and have brought him a new level of political celebrity.

The conflicting response to Torres reflects the mood of a city where almost everyone, including New York’s large Jewish population and the resurgent left, seems to be cautiously probing their neighbors’ views on the Middle East. Ocasio-Cortez and Torres are no exception.

Alicia Thilani Singham Goodwin, political director for Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, a left-wing New York City group, said Ocasio-Cortez’s staff had been in frequent contact to get their “gut check” on possible public statements. Torres speaks regularly to moderate and politically conservative Jewish groups. Both lawmakers have conferred with the city’s Jewish elected officials.

One person with whom neither Ocasio-Cortez nor Torres has discussed the war directly? The other.

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