Congressman Ritchie Torres: ‘Holocaust deniers are the scum of the Earth’

Despite being one of the youngest members of the House at just 34, Torres has become synonymous with the fight against antisemitism and support for the State of Israel.

 Representative Ritchie Torres speaks during the House Financial Services Committee hearing in Washington, US, September 30, 2021.  (photo credit: Al Drago/Pool via REUTERS)
Representative Ritchie Torres speaks during the House Financial Services Committee hearing in Washington, US, September 30, 2021.
(photo credit: Al Drago/Pool via REUTERS)

Congressman Ritchie Torres (D-NY) was born and raised in the Bronx, a geographically tiny but highly impactful district of New York he now represents in the House. Despite being one of the youngest members of the House at just 34, Torres has become synonymous with the fight against antisemitism and support for the State of Israel. He is vice chair of the Homeland Security Committee and serves on the Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection & Innovation. 

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The congressman spoke with Felice Friedson of The Media Line about his defense of Israel, the rise of antisemitism in the US and the steps needed to counter this alarming phenomenon, and how his challenging upbringing led him to a life of public service.  

The Media Line: Congressman Ritchie Torres, thank you so much for taking the time with me on The Media Line.

Rep. Richie Torres: It's an honor to be here.

Congressman Torres, while antisemitism soars as it's not in four decades, you rebuked justice officials in New York and Washington for failing to devote time and attention to it. And it deserves more. In a letter, you cited one hate crime conviction in more than 100 cases. Tell us more.

Democratic Party Congressman Ritchie Torres. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)Democratic Party Congressman Ritchie Torres. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Well, the statistics surrounding antisemitism have been shocking. As you pointed out, the ADL has reported that we've seen the highest levels of antisemitism in more than four decades, to an extent not seen since the ADL began recording incidents about antisemitism.

And then, according to the FBI statistics, the Jewish community is the target of more than 50% of all religiously motivated hate crimes. And we've seen an outbreak of antisemitic hate crimes and hate violence in New York City, which has the largest Jewish population outside Israel.

And so all of those signs are cause for concern. And there was an article a few months ago in Tablet, indicating that since 2008 there have been probably about more than 100 cases relating to antisemitism. Yet only one person has been imprisoned or convicted.

And so I wrote a letter to the Justice Department, calling on them to investigate New York's failure to systematically prevent police and prosecute hate crimes. 

If you're a criminal who is intent on committing antisemitic violence and you see that there's no policing, no prosecution, you're going to continue committing these crimes with impunity.

And I worry that within elements of the Jewish community, confidence in the criminal justice system has been shaken. There's a sense that, what is the point of reporting crime if the reporting rarely results in actual policing and prosecution? And so I worry about a crisis of confidence in the criminal justice system within the Jewish community with respect to hate crimes.

Experts have shared with us that there are copycatters. There's the danger of this when it comes to antisemitic acts. This, of course, is one reason that reckless statements by celebrities are dangerous. So you recently took on Kanye West over his antisemitic remarks: ‘Every human being has brought something of value, especially Hitler. I love Hitler.’ Now, why did you get involved here?

We all have an obligation to speak out and stand up to extremism, including antisemitism, no matter what form it takes, no matter what direction from which it comes.

There are those on the left who only speak out against antisemitism from the right. There are those on the right who only speak out against antisemitism from the left. I speak out against antisemitism from all directions because I have zero tolerance, no matter what form it takes.

Kanye West is one of the most influential cultural figures in American life, in the world. He has more followers than there are Jews in the world. And we cannot allow his antisemitism to go unchecked.

As a public servant, I have an obligation to forcefully denounce antisemitism whenever and wherever it rears its ugly head. And we've seen some of the crudest expressions of antisemitism from Kanye West. You don't get anything cruder than praising Hitler.

You challenge Kanye West to visit Yad Vashem, where they document incidents of antisemitism and what Jews went through during the Holocaust and many of these issues. Do you think that he's going to take up the challenge? 

I can only hope that he will, because he's a man whose heart is consumed with hatred. And he should understand the profound evil of Nazism, the profound evil of Hitler. He should go to Yad Vashem. He should go to the Children’s Museum in Yad Vashem, and understand that the man who he claims to love is responsible for the systematic murder and slaughter of 6 million Jews, including millions of children.

That is not someone who’s worthy of praise, that’s someone who should be seen as the very embodiment of evil. And I feel like he needs a deeper understanding of the history of oppression against Jews. And hopefully that would chasten him. But I have no confidence that he’s actually going to go to Yad Vashem.

You recently wrote on Twitter that combatting antisemitism is not and should never be the sole responsibility of the Jewish community. It’s a moral obligation that binds all of us. How did we get to this point?

History is destiny. The Jewish community has historically been the victim of vicious and violent scapegoating and conspiracy theories.

The Jewish community is no stranger to oppression. If you look at the history of the Jewish people, what you find are one episode after the next of oppression - whether it’s the mass suicide of Jews at Masada in order to escape enslavement at the hands of the Romans or a millennia of exile and pogroms and inquisitions, or the ethnic cleansing of Jews from the Middle East, or the systemic slaughter of Jews during the Holocaust. Trauma and tragedy has been a part of the Jewish story and that’s why I feel so strongly that we need a strong Jewish state that can provide a sanctuary for historically oppressed people.

What do you say to naysayers?

You’re wrong and you should learn your history. Because if you were a student of history, you would understand both the historical and moral necessity of Israel as a Jewish state and Israel as a sanctuary for the Jewish people.

Congressman Torres, 180 nonprofit and civil rights organizations sent a letter to Elon Musk stating that the exchanges of ideas on Twitter must not undermine the safety or wellbeing of users, especially those from vulnerable communities. They called on him to sign onto the IHRA working definition of antisemitism as a guiding tool to stymie the spread of Jew-hatred. They included more than 1,000 examples of antisemitic tweets. What role should the Hill be playing with these social media giants?

I have real concerns that Twitter has descended into a cesspool of antisemitism. And we should hold these social media platforms accountable for filtering out extremism, for filtering out antisemitism. 

Again, I believe in a diversity of viewpoints, but in my mind, there’s a clear difference between expressing an opinion, which should be welcomed, and promoting and propagating hate. 

And when you announce to the world that you love Hitler, you’re not expressing an opinion, you’re conveying hate. And that should have no place on social media. So, there should be a zero-tolerance policy. 

If you are a figure like Kanye West or Nick Fuentes, and you’re propagating antisemitic content, you should be removed from social media; your content should be moderated. And we in Congress have to seriously think about whether we want to amend Section 230. 

Section 230 protects social media companies from civil liability. But I wonder if that protection from civil liability has made the social media companies indifferent to extremism on their own platforms.

Congressman, there are many studies coming out now – the AMCHA organization just released a study that really scoped 100 colleges and universities to look at antisemitism and particularly relative to Jewish identity on campuses, and the prognosis does not look good. There was another recent study that came out by Resume Builder, which is an online résumé building firm, that stated that one in four hiring managing companies would not move forward with a Jewish applicant. This is 2022, heading into 2023. What is the recourse, if any?

Well, the Department of Education, which primarily funds higher education – it is a principal funder of higher education – should hold institutions of higher learning accountable for protecting their students from intimidation and harassment. 

What we have seen in the American academy is the creation of a hostile environment for pro-Israel Jews. It often seems as if our colleges have a safe space for everyone except pro-Israel Jews, and that’s unacceptable. And that should elicit a response from the federal government – a civil rights investigation – to ensure that every child receives an education without fear of harassment or intimidation or violence, period. Education should be a physical safe space for the children who wish to learn. 

When you are speaking about antisemitism, there are those who will come back and say, hate crimes and you’re not dealing with the whole picture. Obviously, in this space, it’s the story of the Jews and the story of the Blacks and the story of Christians and the story of Muslims, and everyone can say we have our version of problems. How do you look at today and answer young people who are very confused when it comes to the issues of race, racism in the United States in particular?

I think we should start with the founding principle of our country, which is, we’re all created equal. We all have equal moral worth and dignity. We all should command respect and dignity. And out of that comes an obligation to fight extremism, no matter what form it takes; to fight racism, and – make no mistake – antisemitism is a form of racism, it’s anti-Jewish racism and it's unacceptable and we should have zero tolerance for it. 

And people often ask me why do you care so deeply about fighting anti-Semitism and they're asking the wrong question. Why wouldn't I care, is the right question. For me, there should be nothing puzzling about me as a Black person fighting antisemitism, just like there should be nothing puzzling about a Jewish person fighting anti-Black racism. We are all in this together, it's a recognition of our moral interdependence.

You are known for your love of Israel, and you have been noted for not joining other progressives such as ‘the squad,’ why?

I'm independent and I call myself a pragmatic, pro-Israel progressive; I come to my own conclusions. You know, my view is people should be careful not to rush to judgment against Israel, that before rushing to judgment you should actually go to Israel and speak to both Israelis and Palestinians, and within Israel speak to both Jews and Arabs and listen to a variety of perspectives and then come to your own conclusions. 

But what I often find is that people who know nothing about Israel, who know nothing about the region, have some of the strongest opinions and are quick to demonize Israel as a Jewish state, and so much of the criticism comes not only from malice but also from just sheer ignorance.  

A few years ago, the New York City Democratic Socialists of America circulated a questionnaire to city council candidates, and it was about 14 pages and on the final page it was a foreign policy section. And the foreign policy section only had two questions. Question number one: Do you pledge never to visit Israel if elected to the city council? And question number two: Do you pledge to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement? And I found that question to be blatantly antisemitic, but it also was telling because there's nothing that the BDS Movement fears more than people actually going to Israel and seeing the truth with their own eyes, rather than allowing themselves to be brainwashed by the propaganda that is amplified on social media.

Speaking of propaganda, what do you say to Holocaust deniers?

To Holocaust deniers? Holocaust deniers are the scum of the earth. I think the Holocaust is one of the greatest atrocities ever perpetrated in humankind. It has left deep scars, not only in the Jewish community but on humanity. Anyone who denies it is engaged in a profound evil. I have no patience, no tolerance for Holocaust denial – it's the worst form of conspiracy theory. 

What are the goals of the bipartisan Homeland Security Committee?

The mission of the Homeland Security Committee is its name - to secure the homeland from terrorism, from a whole host of threats. And one of the issues that we do cover is the need to protect people from domestic extremism and domestic terrorism. And so the Homeland Security Committee has authorized a program known as the Nonprofit Security Grant Program, which provides vulnerable communities and institutions with funding for security enhancements, security improvements. 

And so some of the organizations that have received funding from the not-for-profit security grant program are Jewish day schools and synagogues and yeshivas, for their own protection. My understanding is that a decade ago it was uncommon for Jewish day schools and yeshivas to have heavy security protection, and now it's become the norm because we live in an age of heightened antisemitism. 

The United States historically has been a safe space for the Jewish people outside of Israel, and I worry that we're becoming increasingly indistinguishable from Europe, and that worries me.

Earlier you spoke about the police, I'm coming full circle with you. What's gone wrong?

There is a culture of complacency when it comes to combating hate crimes, but one obvious problem is the failure to even fully collect data. There's no consistent, comprehensive, accurate data collection when it comes to hate crimes. 

Under federal law there's no actual obligation for state or local government to report hate crimes. 

So as a result not every police department reports hate crimes, and the majority of those that do report claim to have no hate crimes, which is implausible. And so my view is if you're not taking the problem seriously enough to record it, then surely you're not taking it seriously enough to prevent it or police it or prosecute it effectively. And so for me the starting point is just proper data collection, which would contribute toward greater awareness of the full extent of the problem.

You were a Bronx boy, you were raised by your mom; what in your background inspired you to get involved in these very dire issues that we are all facing today?

I was born and raised in the Bronx; I spent almost all my life in poverty. I was raised by a single mother who had to raise three of us on minimum wage, which in the 1990s was $4.25 an hour. I've had to face food insecurity and housing insecurity, growing up in slum conditions in public housing. So I'm no stranger to suffering, but out of suffering comes greater empathy – not only for your own struggles, but for the struggles of others. And my empathy is what inspired me to go into public service. I'm looking to do an enormous amount of good for an enormous number of people. I'm just enormously privileged to be a public servant in the greatest country in the world, the United States of America. 

Congressman Ritchie Torres, appreciate you and appreciate your time. Thank you so much for joining me here on The Media Line.

It was an honor. Take care