After weeks of silence, NY Rep. Ritchie Torres says he opposes Israeli judicial overhaul


(New York Jewish Week) — Rep. Ritchie Torres, the Bronx Democrat known for being an outspoken supporter of Israel, has issued his first statement on the country’s proposed judicial overhaul, writing that he is “pleased to see that the ‘judicial reforms’ have been put on pause.”

The statement, published last week as a letter in the Riverdale Press, a newspaper in his district, followed a meeting with a group of constituents led by an American Israeli. It was titled “Let cooler minds prevail here.”

For weeks, Torres was silent on the overhaul, even as other Democratic pro-Israel stalwarts in Congress made statements and signed letters opposing the legislation, which would sap much of the power and independence of the Israeli Supreme Court. Two weeks ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suspended the legislation in the face of massive protests. It is due to return to the table next month, though what it will look like is unclear. 

“No legislature should have the ability to override a supreme court by a mere majority,” Torres wrote in the letter, which came out on the first day of Passover. “Even as a legislator, I recognize that the raw political power of a legislature should never be left unchecked.” 

He added, “I hope the present government will negotiate in good faith a compromise that preserves the independence of the judiciary.”

The letter was published days after Torres met with the group of constituents in his Bronx office on March 31. The meeting was organized by Ron Wegsman, a dual American and Israeli citizen who lives in Riverdale, a neighborhood in Torres’ district with a large Jewish and Israeli population.

“We came to him,” Wegsman said. “We got together and asked to meet with him. It was a very nice meeting. He was interested in what we had to say. We asked him to make a statement and he said that he would be happy to do so.” 

Wegsman added that he hoped for a statement from Torres given the close ties many constituents in Riverdale have to Israel. 

“What’s happening in Israel directly affects us,” Wegsman said. “It’s not something that’s happening on the other side of the world in some foreign country. Undermining of Israeli democracy would affect our families. We felt that this is something that is actually a concern of [Torres’] as a representative in the U.S. Congress, and that’s why we turned to him.”

Torres’ statement on the overhaul comes after weeks in which he refrained from opining on the legislation, even as other New York City Democrats with long pro-Israel records spoke out. 

Roughly a month ago, two letters opposing the overhaul were put out by Democratic members of Congress – one of which urged President Joe Biden “to use all diplomatic tools available to prevent Israel’s current government from further damaging the nation’s democratic institutions.” Torres was not among the 92 Democrats to sign it. Another letter came solely from the chamber’s Jewish Democrats.

Wegsman said that despite his public silence, Torres told the group “that any time someone asked him, he made clear his support for an independent judiciary in Israel.” 

The New York Jewish Week had reached out to Torres’ office multiple times in recent months for a comment on the judiciary reform, and did not receive a response. Torres likewise did not respond to a request for comment on his April 6 letter.

According to the campaign finance database Open Secrets, the American Israel Public Affairs Committe, the pro-Israel lobby, is a top contributor to Torres. While other major American Jewish groups have publicly criticized the judicial overhaul, AIPAC has stayed relatively quiet. In response to Netanyahu’s pause on the legislation, it praised Israel’s “showcasing its passionate engagement in the democratic process to determine the policies that will guide their country,” but it did not sign on to a collective statement by multiple groups praising the legislative pause.

In his letter, Torres also stuck to his pro-Israel bona fides praising Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system — and hinted at why he may have declined previous calls to join colleagues in criticizing the judicial reform. Support for Iron Dome “should, and must, remain unconditional,” he wrote.

“The usual detractors have been rushing to exploit the current controversy in Israel as an excuse for conditioning aid,” Torres said. “I reject these cynical attempts emphatically.” 

Wegsman said Torres’ sentiments on the judicial reform appeared to be genuine.

“We said to him, ‘We think you need to be more proactive and actually come out with a statement,’” Wegsman said. “He was very welcoming to us. We didn’t have to convince him. He said that it was clear that the override clause was totally unacceptable. We didn’t feel we needed to pressure him. It might be that he just had to hear it from constituents.”