The death of a Jew after a protest clash in California is under investigation

As a deadly clash between protesters in a Southern California suburb threatened to become an international incident on Tuesday, authorities said it was not “quite clear” how a 69-year-old Jew died in an altercation with a pro-Palestinian protester over the weekend.

At a packed news conference, Ventura County Sheriff Jim Fryhoff urged calm and said his office was investigating whether the death should be charged as a homicide and a hate crime.

But his office made no arrests in the case, which arose from a dispute Sunday afternoon amid dueling demonstrations at an intersection in Thousand Oaks, California, a suburb about 40 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

Sheriff Fryhoff said investigators questioned a 50-year-old man from the nearby suburb of Moorpark who protested in support of the Palestinians on Sunday and whose home was searched on Monday. But, he added, authorities are still trying to sort out the events that led to the death of Jewish protester Paul Kessler.

Witnesses said Mr. Kessler got into an argument with a pro-Palestinian protester on Sunday and fell during the altercation, sustaining a head injury, the sheriff said. He added that Mr. Kessler was conscious and responsive when officers arrived at the scene, and at the hospital when they spoke to him again.

Mr. Kessler died early Monday, and an autopsy performed by the Ventura County Medical Examiner’s Office determined the cause was blunt force trauma to the back of his head.

Sheriff Fryhoff said surveillance footage and other video obtained at the scene did not provide a clear picture of the encounter, and that witnesses interviewed immediately afterward gave “conflicting statements” — disagreeing, for example, on what Mr. . What made Kessler fall was who instigated the conflict.

At Temple Etz Chaim in Thousand Oaks, a Conservative synagogue where Mr. Kessler and his wife were members, Senior Rabbi Ari Averbach said the victim, a father of two grown children, “wasn’t there as, like, some counter-protester looking for trouble.” , but followed a neighbor to a gathering of about 100 people at a local intersection anchored by a gas station and business park.

“It’s a big intersection in our city, and it was one of those places where people go to protest and other people roll their eyes as they walk by,” Rabbi Averbach said, noting that synagogues and mosques in the community were generally cordial. relations.

Jonathan Oswaks, 69, said in a telephone interview Monday night that he first met Mr. Kessler a week before the incident when they went to observe a similar pro-Palestinian protest. They decided to counter-protest next week at the intersection in Thousand Oaks, Oswaks said.

“We’ve been here, we’ve seen what it’s all about,” Mr. Oswaks said of their decision. “We have to show up with people and Israeli flags.”

The pair met again on Sunday around 2 p.m., an hour before the pro-Palestinian rally was scheduled to begin, Oswaks said. He and Mr. Kessler then separated and stood on opposite sides of Westlake Boulevard, intending to “take up space,” he said, with Mr. Kessler holding an Israeli flag.

As pro-Palestinian protesters began to gather, a man Oswaks believed he recognized from last week’s protest began yelling into his ear with a megaphone, Oswaks said. The man then crossed the road and approached Mr. Kessler. Mr. Oswaks said he saw a man swinging his megaphone at Mr. Kessler, but was not sure if Mr. Kessler had been hit.

dr. Chris R. Young, the Ventura County medical examiner, said Tuesday that his autopsy determined that Mr. Kessler suffered “non-fatal injuries” to the left side of his face, as well as blunt force trauma to the back of the head consistent with a fall. He said he considered it a homicide — meaning another person contributed to Mr. Kessler’s death or was directly responsible — but that his medical judgment differed from the criminal definition of murder.

“We are still waiting to see the evidence as to what happened in that interaction and whether there was a blow to the face that caused the fall, or whether Mr. Kessler fell and it was a non-emergency event,” said Sheriff Fryhoff.

Word of Mr. Kessler’s downfall quickly reverberated through communities that were already on edge. Several mourners brought flowers and lit candles on Monday night on the platform outside a Shell petrol station near where the altercation took place.

Rabbi Michael Barclay, of the nearby Ner Simcha Temple, said Monday night that he urged congregants not to spread rumors and had previously dissuaded community members from counter-protesting pro-Palestinian demonstrations to avoid conflict.

Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Los Angeles office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, condemned any violence and urged people to avoid “sensationalizing such a tragedy for political gain or spreading rumors that could unnecessarily escalate tensions that are already at a peak.” high time.”

“We urge everyone to wait for the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office to complete its investigation before making any conclusions,” Mr. Ayloush said in a statement. “Our thoughts are with the family and the Jewish community during this difficult time.”

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles pointed to recent cases of anti-Semitic crimes in the region, which have upset Jewish residents in Southern California.

“The fact is that now one Jew is dead,” said Rabbi Noah Farkas, the federation’s president and chief executive officer. “And here we are again as a Jewish community, scared, scared to express ourselves, to be ourselves.”

Livia Albeck-Ripka contributed reporting from Los Angeles, and Sergio Olmos from Thousand Oaks.

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