A Jewish man died at clashing rallies for Israel and Palestine. Was it an accident or a hate crime?

Conflicting witness accounts of the interaction between Kessler and the suspect have forced the police to seek photos or video of the encounter writes Graig Graziosi

Tuesday 07 November 2023 23:17 GMT
A makeshift shrine is placed at the scene of a Sunday confrontation that lead to death of a demonstrator Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023, in Thousand Oaks, Calif. Paul Kessler, 69, died at a hospital on Monday
A makeshift shrine is placed at the scene of a Sunday confrontation that lead to death of a demonstrator Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023, in Thousand Oaks, Calif. Paul Kessler, 69, died at a hospital on Monday (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

When Ventura County sheriff's deputies arrived at the scene of a protest in Thousand Oaks, California, they found a 69-year-old Jewish man lying on the ground, bleeding from his head and his mouth.

The man was conscious, and reportedly had taken a blow to the back of the head — the result of a fall — that some witnesses claim was the fault of a 50-year-old counter-protester.

The elderly Jewish man was taken to a hospital. He died early the next day from his injuries.

The street corner at Westlake and Thousand Oaks boulevards was the temporary home of two protests — one calling for a free Palestine, and one supporting Israel.

There have been 21 protests in Ventura County since the 7 October attack on Israel carried out by the Hamas militant organisation that controls the government in Palestine.

In the wake of the attack, Israel has launched a war in Gaza, killing thousands of civilians and displacing millions. The heavy-handed response to the attack has earned condemnation from world governments and sparked protests across the world, including those in Ventura County.

Sunday’s protest was the only one in Ventura County to turn violent.

Now, police are investigating what may have been a hate crime, but conflicting witness statements have painted a muddy picture of what actually happened on the street corner.

Who is Paul Kessler?

The 69-year-old man who was injured and died was identified by police as Paul Kessler. According to Ventura County Sheriff Jim Fryhoff, Kessler was at the scene of the incident on Sunday to demonstrate in support of Israel.

It wasn't his first protest since the 7 October attack; he had attended a pro-Palestine protest a week earlier to counter-protest and show his support for Israel. He met Jonathan Oswaks, 69, during that protest, and the two men agreed they would attend the 5 November demonstration together.

“We’ve been here, we’ve seen what this is all about,” Mr Oswaks told The New York Times. “We need to show up with people and Israeli flags.”

The men met on Sunday around 2pm and travelled to the protest. Once they arrived, they split up — each one taking one side of Westlake Boulevard — with the intention of "occupying space." Kessler was holding an Israeli flag.

Mr Oswaks claims a man they saw the previous week demonstrating in support of Palestine showed up and began yelling into his ear with a megaphone. He said the man crossed the road and approached Kessler, and allegedly swung his megaphone in the man's direction, though he could not confirm if it made contact with Kessler.

Whatever happened, Kessler ended up on the ground and bloodied.

Jewish Man Killed During Israel-Hamas Protest in California

Police response to incident

Ventura County sheriff's deputies received a 911 call that a man was lying on the street, injured. Deputies were around the area but not actively monitoring or inserting themselves into the protest. Mr Fryhoff said during a press conference on Tuesday 7 November that decisions are made on a case-by-case basis as to whether or not deputies will be actively inserted into protests to avoid unnecessary escalation with demonstrators.

Mr Fryhoff said there was no indication before the demonstration that the event would be violent, so deputies remained in the area but not actively among the protesters.

When they arrived on the scene, they found Kessler conscious and responsive, but also injured. In addition to the bleeding, it was clear he had taken a serious blow to the back of his head.

One of the individuals who called 911, the pro-Palestine demonstrator Mr Oswaks encountered, was identified as a possible suspect. The protester remained on the scene and spoke with police about what had happened.

Mr Fryhoff said the suspect was "cooperative." They have chosen not to release the suspect’s name as of Tuesday.

Kessler was transported to a local hospital and was conscious through much of the night. However, he had suffered a skull fracture and his brain was swelling and surrounded by a haemorrhage, according to Ventura County Chief Medical Examiner Christopher Young.

In the early hours of 6 November, the hospital declared Kessler dead.

Investigation launched by Ventura County Sheriff

Following the incident, deputies spoke with witnesses in the immediate area but received conflicting accounts of what occurred between Kessler and the pro-Palestine protester. He said they spoke with both pro-Palestine and pro-Israel witnesses but were given contradictory information concerning which of the men was the aggressor in the conflict.

“There was clearly an interaction between the two, but what that level of interaction is is still unclear,” Mr Fryhoff said.

The specifics of those accounts have not been shared with the public.

When the VCSD learned Kessler had died, they began working to obtain a search warrant for the suspect's home. Once that was in place, the suspect was pulled over by a patrol car in Simi Valley while deputies searched his home. Mr Fryhoff said the results of that search warrant could not be shared with the public as the investigation is ongoing.

Ventura County Sheriff Jim Fryhoff takes questions during a news conference at the Ventura Sheriff's East County Station in Thousand Oaks, Calif., Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023.
Ventura County Sheriff Jim Fryhoff takes questions during a news conference at the Ventura Sheriff's East County Station in Thousand Oaks, Calif., Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023. (AP)

The suspect was released once the deputies completed their search.

Mr Fryhoff told reporters on Tuesday that no one has been arrested, including the suspect. While the medical examiner did rule the cause of death to be blunt force trauma by way of homicide, Mr Young reminded reporters that homicide simply means another human played a role in the death and did not necessarily mean a crime had been committed.

Mr Young also noted that Kessler suffered a non-lethal injury to the side of his face, which could be consistent with a blow to the face. When asked if a megaphone could have caused the injury, Mr Fryhoff said it was possible, but they did not have enough evidence to say so conclusively.

The VCSD has asked anyone in the public with videos or photos of the incident to share them with investigators. Footage pulled from a gas station shows Kessler lying on the ground but does not show details of the interaction between him and the suspect.

Authorities provide update on Jewish man's death

Response from religious communities

When the news that Kessler had died became public it quickly swept through the local religious communities, many of which were already hyper-sensitive to issues surrounding the war in Gaza.

Mourners built a makeshift shrine near the Shell gas station where Kessler suffered his fatal injury.

Rabbi Michael Barclay of the Temple Ner Simcha, which is located near the site of the incident, told the New York Times on Monday that he had urged his congregants not to spread rumours and to avoid counter-protests at pro-Palestine rallies to avoid confrontations.

Hussam Ayloush, the executive director of the Council of American-Islamic Relations in Los Angeles, issued a statement denouncing all violence, and urged people not to engage in "sensationalising such a tragedy for political gains or spreading rumours that could unnecessarily escalate tensions that are already at an all-time high."

Mr Fryhoff also implored the public not to engage in rumours or misinformation regarding the incident and said that patrols at both Islamic and Jewish places of worship would be increased as tensions remain high over the war in Gaza.

He further urged the public to “remain calm and patient” while the investigation into Kessler’s death continues.

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