By Jacob Gurvis
November 7, 2023
THOUSAND OAKS, California (JTA) — Police in Ventura County, outside Los Angeles, said they had identified a suspect but had not made any arrests in connection with the death of Paul Kessler, a 69-year-old Jewish pro-Israel activist who died after a confrontation with a pro-Palestinian protester on Monday.
Investigators have not ruled out the possibility of a hate crime, Sheriff James Fryhoff said during a press conference on Tuesday morning. And while the incident is being investigated as a homicide, a medical examiner explained that that term means Kessler’s death resulted from human interaction — and not necessarily that a crime had been committed.
The case is attracting significant attention because it is the first death reported in connection with international protests for and against Israel in the weeks since Oct. 7, when Hamas attacked Israel, prompting Israel to declare war on the terror group.
Fryhoff declined to share many details of the ongoing investigation but sketched out the contours of what happened on Monday, when pro-Palestinian protesters gathered at a busy intersection in this southern California suburb, and pro-Israel demonstrators assembled at the same spot for a counter-protest. There were about 75 to 100 people in total between the two camps, he said, and police officers were monitoring the scene but were not stationed there.
He said multiple people had called 911 after Kessler fell following an altercation of some kind and that police had interviewed witnesses after arriving just minutes later.
“Witnesses provided conflicting statements about what the altercation, and who the aggressor, was. Some of the witnesses were pro-Palestine while others were pro-Israel,” he said. “During the investigation at the scene, deputies determined that in the altercation with Mr. Kessler, he fell backward and struck his head on the ground. What exactly transpired prior to Mr. Kessler falling backward isn’t crystal clear right now.”
Fryhoff said a 50-year-old male who lives in nearby Moorpark, and who was a pro-Palestinian demonstrator, had been identified as a suspect in the case and was detained briefly on Tuesday afternoon while investigators executed a search warrant on his home. Fryhoff said the man, whom he did not identify, had cooperated with deputies at the scene of the incident. The man also said he had been among those to call 911, Fryhoff said.
Fryhoff exhorted anyone with video from the event to share it with the sheriff’s office. A video from a nearby Shell gas station was obscured by the gas station sign, he said.
Kessler was conscious and responsive at the protest and again when officers interviewed him at a nearby hospital, Fryhoff said. His condition deteriorated and he was pronounced dead shortly after 1 a.m. Tuesday, nearly 12 hours after the incident.
The chief medical examiner said physicians who assessed Kessler, as well as an autopsy that was performed on him, observed an injury to his face that could have been caused by being struck with a megaphone — something the local Jewish federation said had occurred. But it was the blow to the back of Kessler’s head that was fatal, said the examiner, Dr. Christopher Young.
The rallies took place at a busy intersection that Fryhoff said has been home to two other protests related to Israel and Gaza since Oct. 7.
“We’ve had 21 protests countywide since October 7. This was the only one so far that has had some type of violent encounter at all,” he said.
The CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, Rabbi Noah Farkas, was at the press conference.
“We have to allow the investigation to continue,” Farkas said. “We appreciate that it’s being investigated as a homicide. And we hope the facts of the case will come out so that we have real clarity about what had happened. But at the same, we live in an environment that we know is very hostile to the Jewish community. … The environment was such that it could lend itself to violence.”
Farkas said he urged the local Jewish community “to be vigilant and to stay calm” despite mounting reports of antisemitic incidents globally and several local incidents of violence, including an Oct. 25 home invasion in Studio City, California, in which the alleged intruder shouted “Free Palestine” and “Kill Jews.”
“The last thing that anyone should want is for Jews in the community to take matters into their own hands and commit some kind of reprisal,” he said. He also said Jews should continue to attend pro-Israel demonstrations, including ones planned for Beverly Hills on Nov. 19 and in Washington, D.C. next week. “That’s how we can express ourselves,” he said.
Fryhoff said his department assesses the risks related to each event before deciding whether to send officers.
“It’s very clear that sometimes when law enforcement does arrive on scene, that we can be a catalyst for additional aggression, and so we try and limit our presence,” he said. In this case, he said, “There was no indication of impending violence and so no additional resources were needed. … This event was not preventable.”