The death of a 69-year-old Jewish man after a clash at a protest over the conflict between Israel and Hamas has sparked outrage and calls for calm in Westlake Village, Southern California.
The police are investigating the incident, which they have not ruled out as a hate crime.
The man, Paul Kessler suffered a head injury on Sunday at a demonstration in Thousand Oaks, a suburb of Los Angeles, where pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli groups had gathered. He died on Monday at a hospital, authorities said.
As per accounts from multiple witnesses, authorities have reported that Kessler was engaged in a confrontation with protesters when he stumbled and suffered a head injury.
However, the details of the incident are not “crystal clear”, said the Ventura county sheriff, Jim Fryhoff, at a news conference on Tuesday. He said that witnesses gave conflicting accounts of what happened before Kessler fell.
The sheriff’s office has identified a suspect who stayed at the scene and told deputies he was part of the altercation and that he called 911, Fryhoff said.
Social media posts showed video of Kessler lying on the sidewalk with blood on his head and mouth as people helped him. The Jewish Federation of Los Angeles alleged that Kessler was struck in the head with a megaphone by a pro-Palestinian protester just before his fall, though the sheriff’s office has not confirmed this account.
Dr. Christopher Young, the medical examiner, reported that an autopsy revealed Kessler’s cause of death to be a blunt force head injury, with injuries consistent with a fall. Additionally, Young noted that there were “non-lethal” facial injuries present.
He said that the manner of death was homicide, but that does not mean that a crime occurred.
Sheriff Fryhoff stated that the protest had been promoted as a peaceful gathering and remained tranquil when a local police chief passed by just minutes before the incident. Approximately 100 individuals were in attendance at the protest, he noted.
The sheriff’s office has searched the suspect’s home, but has not named him. They have asked anyone with information, photos or videos of the incident to contact them.
“We understand that the war in Israel and Gaza has led to an increase in hateful and threatening rhetoric and we want to assure the Muslim and Jewish communities that we stand with them both during this difficult time,” Fryhoff said.
The conflict between Israel and Palestine has triggered protests across the US, and raised concerns about antisemitism and Islamophobia. The sheriff’s office urged people to avoid spreading rumors and misinformation that could cause unnecessary fear in the community.
Rabbi Michael Barclay of Temple Ner Simcha in Westlake Village, near Thousand Oaks, asked people to not jump to conclusions about what happened.
“I just got off the phone with the Chief of Police,” he posted on X, formerly Twitter.
“They have conflicting reports of what happened, and they did interview the suspect that is identified in social media at the event. They have no video.”
He said that police are being careful before making accusations. “We need to do the same; and not let this become a spark that starts an inferno,” he wrote.
The Greater Los Angeles area branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations extended their sympathies for Kessler’s passing, describing it as a “heartbreaking and startling tragedy.”