The death of a 69-year-old Jewish man after suffering a head injury Sunday during an altercation at demonstrations for Palestinians and Israelis in Southern California has been ruled a homicide, authorities said.
Witnesses say the man, identified as Paul Kessler, was “involved in a physical altercation” with at least one counterprotester while pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian rallies were being held in Thousand Oaks, the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office said in a news release.
“During the altercation, Kessler fell backward and struck his head on the ground,” the sheriff’s office said.
Footage taken at the scene and shared online shows Kessler lying on his back on the sidewalk, with blood on his face and on the ground. He places his hands on his head as a woman with a Palestinian flag on her back and a man lean over him, trying to help, the video shows.
The footage does not show the altercation that led to Kessler’s injuries.
No suspect has been named in the case, and it’s unclear what led up to the altercation or how many people were involved. The sheriff’s office “has not ruled out the possibility of a hate crime” as it investigates the death, it said.
Sunday’s demonstrations in Thousand Oaks, a little under 40 miles from downtown Los Angeles, are among many that have erupted in cities across the US to protest Israel’s intense retaliation for the October 7 Hamas attacks, which killed more than 1,400 people, including civilians and soldiers.
More than 10,000 people have been killed in Gaza since Israel launched its military offensive a month ago, the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Ramallah said , drawing from sources in the Hamas-controlled enclave. Israeli airstrikes have hit schools, refugee camps and ambulances.
Kessler was found by deputies with a head injury Sunday afternoon and taken to a hospital, where he died of his injuries the next day, the sheriff’s office said. An autopsy found “the cause of death to be blunt force head injury and the manner of death homicide,” the sheriff’s office said.
“This is an active and ongoing investigation, and the incident appears to be isolated and not part of a large effort,” the sheriff’s office said, asking for the public’s help as it gathers information on what unfolded during the demonstration.
The sheriff’s office referred to Kessler as a “pro-Israeli protester” but did not share further details. CNN has reached out to the sheriff’s office for more information.
“As details emerge and are confirmed, we stand resolute in condemnation of violence and antisemitism,” Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass said in a statement Tuesday. “This death is a blow to our region at a time when tensions continue to rise worldwide. We must redouble our efforts to ensure violence and hate are met with accountability and consequences. Los Angeles refuses to harbor this hatred.
Community awaits results of investigation
The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles in a statement Monday expressed its sympathy for Kessler’s family, adding that its leaders were waiting for more information about his death from law enforcement.
Still, the federation condemned violence against members of the Jewish community, saying it “has no place in civilized society” and vowing to “do everything in our power to prevent it.”
“We demand safety,” the statement said.
While authorities have yet to definitively link Kessler’s death to antisemitism, it occurred amid a reported spike in antisemitic incidents, with the Anti-Defamation League reporting a nearly 400% increase in the days after Hamas attacked Israel on October 7. FBI Director Christopher Wray told a Senate panel last week that antisemitism was a threat reaching “historic levels” in the United States.
The Greater Los Angeles Area office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations is “deeply saddened by this tragic and shocking loss,” it said in a statement, adding its “thoughts are with the family and the Jewish community during this difficult time.”
“We join local Jewish leaders in calling on all individuals to refrain from jumping to conclusions, sensationalizing such a tragedy for political gains, or spreading rumors that could unnecessarily escalate tensions that are already at an all-time high,” the council’s statement continued. “While we strongly support the right of political debate, CAIR-LA and the Muslim community stand with the Jewish community in rejecting any and all violence, antisemitism, Islamophobia, or incitement of hatred.”
A rabbi at Temple Ner Simcha, a nearby Westlake Village temple, spoke with law enforcement about Kessler’s death and also is encouraging community members to wait for the results of the investigation, he said.
Rabbi Michael Barclay spoke with the Thousand Oaks police chief and the Ventura County sheriff and was told there are conflicting reports of what happened in altercation, he told CNN.
“These are really good men I trust, and it’s really important to let them do their job,” Barclay said. “’Never again’ is now, but at the same time we don’t need to make a fire
He encouraged anyone with video of the incident to share it with police.
The corner where Kessler was injured often has demonstrations, Barclay said, adding he has been telling his congregation to avoid the area when one is planned after hearing reports of issues with counterprotesters and antisemitic hate speech.
CNN has reached out to the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office about any previous incidents reported at that location.