Representing neighboring districts in the Bronx, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ritchie Torres have staked sharply divergent positions on the Israel-Hamas war.
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 American-Israeli relations in decades, the clashing views of Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ritchie Torres offer a striking glimpse into the future of one of American politics’ fiercest debates.
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, the left-wing standard-bearer known for her social media mastery, has bucked Democratic orthodoxy since Hamas’s 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.
Mr. 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, Ms. 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. Mr. Torres, talked about as a future senator or governor, appears intent on using the moment to smash 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 A.O.C. version?”
For now, there is little doubt about the United States’ position. Though the Biden administration has pushed for humanitarian “pauses” as Israel’s counteroffensive pummels the Gaza Strip, the president and top congressional leaders have repeatedly reaffirmed lock-step 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.
Though Ms. Ocasio-Cortez struggled early on to articulate her views on the Middle East and has never visited the region, the 34-year-old congresswoman has come to embody that generational shift.
She uses terms like “apartheid” and “oppression,” loathed by Israel’s defenders, to describe the treatment of Palestinians. Last week, she called the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the most powerful pro-Israel lobby and one of Mr. Torres’s 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,” Ms. 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 Ms. 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 Ms. 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. But she has also taken steps to differentiate herself from allies like Representatives Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Cori Bush of Missouri, sidestepping some of the left’s most inflammatory critiques — like accusing Israel of committing genocide in Gaza — to focus on the war’s mounting human cost.
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, who did not agree to an interview, met in Washington last month with the families of Jewish hostages kidnapped by Hamas. She has repeatedly condemned the group and supports a two-state solution shunned by some on the left. And at a time when many liberal Jews feel they are being abandoned by the left, she has warned about “disgusting and unacceptable” antisemitism in a post to 8.4 million Instagram followers, saying, “No movement of integrity should tolerate it.”
“You can see how hard Alexandria is trying to listen compassionately across the lines of this conflict,” said Brad Lander, the left-leaning New York City comptroller who is the highest-ranking Jewish city official. “I’m not saying anyone is doing it perfectly, but there is a difference between trying and not trying.”
More moderate Jewish Democrats have also taken note. Representative Dan Goldman of New York, who along with Mr. Torres voted this week to censure Ms. Tlaib for using divisive pro-Palestinian rhetoric, said he and Ms. Ocasio-Cortez had “made a conscious effort to keep an open line of communication” even if they did not always agree on the conflict.
On the other side of the Bronx River, Mr. 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, the platform formerly known as Twitter, to Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s 13.2 million — but the combativeness of Mr. Torres’s retorts has stood out. In just the last 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.”
Mr. Torres has reserved special vitriol for the Democratic Socialists of America, the small but influential leftist group that has pushed for boycotts of Israel and counts Ms. Ocasio-Cortez as a member. In an interview, he said that the D.S.A. 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.
“I do worry that the next generation is increasingly indoctrinated with anti-Israel hate so virulent that it renders them indifferent to the coldblooded murder of Jews in Israel,” he said.
His views are no surprise to those who watched Mr. Torres, a proud college dropout and defender of public housing, evolve from left-aligned political upstart to more traditional Democratic congressman.
Though he represents an overwhelmingly Black and Latino district that includes only a few thousand Jewish voters, he has improbably made the conflict 5,700 miles away a top priority since 2015, when he traveled to Israel on a City Council delegation. It was his first trip abroad, and Mr. Torres said witnessing both the fragility of the frontier and Tel Aviv’s openness to gay life left him with “profound empathy” for Israel and a commitment to a two-state solution.
His combativeness has infuriated the left. Waleed Shahid, a progressive strategist who is close to Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, called Mr. Torres “a propagandist for the Israeli government.”
Jeremy Cohan, a leader of the D.S.A.’s New York City chapter, said Mr. 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 Mr. 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 mere mention of his name inspired an ovation at an AIPAC luncheon in Midtown Manhattan last week. A Jewish nursing professor posted a video of a painting she had commissioned with Mr. Torres in front of a Star of David. At a rally in his district, hundreds of Jewish students from SAR Academy, a private Jewish school, chanted his name in unison; one called him a “constant in this broken world.”
As she waited for him to speak at another event near City Hall, Sari Ancona, the mother of a Jewish student at Cooper Union, said Mr. Torres represented something essential: “It means that there are people that support us that aren’t us.”
The conflicting response to Mr. 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. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez and Mr. Torres are no exception.
Alicia Thilani Singham Goodwin, the political director for Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, a left-wing New York City group, said Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s staff had been in frequent contact to get their “gut check” on possible public statements. Mr. Torres speaks regularly to moderate and politically conservative Jewish groups. Both lawmakers have conferred with the city’s Jewish elected officials.
One person neither Ms. Ocasio-Cortez nor Mr. Torres has discussed the war with directly? The other.