More details emerge on protest outside L.A. synagogue

Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers clash with anti-Israel protesters gathered outside the Adas Torah Orthodox Jewish synagogue in Los Angeles, June 23, 2024. (Photo by DAVID SWANSON / AFP) (Photo by DAVID SWANSON/AFP via Getty Images)
Los Angeles police stood outside a synagogue where a protest Sunday turned violent. (David Swanson / AFP via Getty Images)

Four days after a violent protest outside a Los Angeles synogogue sparked national furor, more perspectives are emerging about what actually happened.

The demonstration sparked condemnation from local as well as national elected officials, including President Biden, Vice President Harris and Gov. Gavin Newsom.

“Intimidating Jewish congregants is dangerous, unconscionable, antisemitic and un-American,” Biden said in a statement. “Americans have a right to peaceful protest. But blocking access to a house of worship — and engaging in violence — is never acceptable.”

The incident has led to beefed-up police patrols in the area as well as discussions of restricting mask-wearing during protests.

It has also sparked criticism from both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian sides about police tactics.

A physician based in Los Angeles, who requested anonymity because he fears reprisals, worked as a medic during Sunday's protest outside the Adas Torah synagogue in the predominantly Jewish Pico-Robertson neighborhood. During the hours-long melee, in which violent clashes broke out between pro-Palestinian supporters and pro-Israel counter-protesters, he treated at least 11 people, whose injuries ranged from chest pain and shortness of breath from inhaling pepper spray to a fractured arm.

"This was probably the scariest protest I've been to," he said. "It was very apparent that our police weren't there to protect us and that any acts of violence that occurred in front of them wouldn't be met with consequences. It was a very traumatic experience, and I'm still coming to grips with it."

Read more: Protest violence outside L.A. synagogue spurs widespread condemnation. Bass vows quick action

The Los Angeles native volunteered to work as a medic after seeing a protest flier posted on the Instagram account for the Southern California chapter of the Palestinian Youth Movement. Sunday's melee prompted politicians and Jewish community groups to condemn the protest outside the religious site as an act of antisemitism. Pro-Palestinian supporters, however, say the protest was a direct response to a real estate event at the synagogue advertised as providing information on "housing projects in all the best Anglo neighborhoods in Israel."

The ad that ran in Friday's Jewish Journal did not specify the location of the real estate.

According to an archive of the website for My Home in Israel, one of the companies listed on the advertisement, homes were listed for $435,000 to $4.1 million in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and in the West Bank territories of Efrat and Ariel. Much of the international community, including the U.S. and the U.N., says that settlements in the West Bank are illegal under international law, which Israel disputes.

On Sunday, the medic arrived at the synagogue to find protesters gathered near the entrance. Within 20 minutes, Los Angeles police officers showed up and formed two separate lines — one on the east side of the block and another on the west, cutting off access to the area where the pro-Palestinian supporters had parked their cars, he said. The protesters were effectively "sandwiched" between the counter-protesters and the police.

"That's when I began to realize how dangerous the situation was," he said.

The officers started pushing and using batons against the protesters to try to get the crowd to disperse, he said. He said both protesters and counter-protesters used pepper spray.

Interim LAPD Chief Dominic Choi previously confirmed that a "mobile field force" tried to disperse the crowd. Choi also said the protesters had "attempted to block the entrance of the synagogue." The LAPD referred questions regarding use of force and allegations that they didn't intervene in the violence to a department news release about the protest, which didn't address those topics.

The medic said he treated at least 11 protesters, including seven who had been pepper-sprayed. One woman was sprayed three times in the face as she chanted on a megaphone, he said. He treated another person who complained of chest pain and shortness of breath after inhaling pepper spray. Another suffered a right arm fracture after being struck with a police baton, he said.

"There were a lot of people struggling to stay safe," the medic said.

Around 1:30 or 2 p.m., the medic said, he and a group of about 80 to 100 protesters decided to leave , but because they were blocked from reaching their cars by the police line, they had to use side streets through the neighborhood.

For more than an hour, a group of Israel supporters clashed with the protesters, he said, He recalled one person from the pro-Israel side yelling out, "We have the bullets, you have the blood."

Before Sunday's protest, the doctor had helped out with the pro-Palestinian encampments at UCLA and USC, he said, volunteering in the medical tent and teaching protesters basic first aid and how to respond to medical emergencies.

The Times talked to others who witnessed the protest and its aftermath, who offered their perspectives.

Rabbi Hertzel Illulian, founder of the JEM Community Center in Beverly Hills, arrived at Adas Torah on Sunday to worship during afternoon prayer and was confronted by a group yelling into megaphones. Some temple visitors were blocked from going inside, he said.

“We could not pray well because these people outside were screaming,” he said.

Jessica Hyam, who owns the Little Tichel Lady clothing shop a few doors down from the synagogue, heard about the protest and hired a security guard to stand outside her store. The protest started small and just in front of Adas Torah, but eventually the sidewalk in front of her store was full.

Her security guard ran inside after he was pepper sprayed.

“It’s our home,” Hyam said, “so for them to come into a densely populated Jewish area and to protest here, it doesn’t feel like it’s part of their cause. It just feels like they’re coming and telling us, ‘We’re against you.’”

Sam Yebri, who watched the situation outside the synagogue Sunday, said targeting places of worship appeared to him to be a new level of escalation by protesters. Yebri’s family prays, eats and shops in the Pico-Robertson community and his children attend school there, he said.

He arrived outside Adas Torah around 1 p.m. and saw protesters wearing masks and green headbands chanting, “Intifada,” the Arabic word for a rebellion.

Eden Cohen said a handful of LAPD officers were standing at the entrance of the synagogue, apparently trying to keep protesters from going inside. Her throat and eyes burned from the bear spray that saturated the air, she said, adding that she saw Jewish people on the ground after being sprayed with the irritant as others tried to help them.

Cohen said she heard anti-Jewish slurs and calls for violence against Israeli soldiers.

“Police were really not stopping the fights that were breaking out.... It was a chaotic, violent, terrifying scene that seemed to be completely out of control,” Cohen said.

Videographer Sean Beckner-Carmitchel said he was hit in the back of the head by pro-Israel protesters while he covered the event. Several men followed him on Pico Boulevard shortly before 4:30 p.m. In his video, someone off camera can be heard telling the men that Beckner-Carmitchel is a member of the media.

“It was nothing other than egging on violence,” he said. “There were no political statements being made.”

After Sunday's violence, those in the crowd supporting Israel also criticized the police for not intervening.

Talia Regev, 43, who said she came to the protest "to make sure things wouldn't get out of hand," was speaking to police officers when, she said, she turned around and witnessed her friend Naftoli Sherman fall to the ground.

Sherman, 25, told a Times reporter that he was punched in the left eye by a pro-Palestinian demonstrator. As he fell to the ground, some in the crowd tried to pull the man who punched him away from him while others tried to pile on top of them. When he finally got up, the left side of his face was bleeding, and his nose was broken. He walked over to the officers and asked them to call an ambulance or let him through the line, but they remained in place and told him to use side streets.

Eventually, Sherman said, he walked around the police line and went to a nearby hospital, where his nose was reset.

Regev said she stood between combatants in an effort to break up fights. She also saw someone pick up a chair and was able to talk them out of using it.

A pro-Israel demonstrator who was carrying a spiked pole was arrested, cited and released, and there were two other reports of battery, according to the LAPD. A pro-Palestinian protester also used a chemical irritant against at least two officers, which the department is investigating, Choi said.

At a public-security briefing Wednesday, L.A. Mayor Karen Bass and LAPD Cmdr. Steve Lurie denied the allegation that police were told to do nothing. Lurie said no officials gave an order to LAPD officers to "stand down and slow or stop any action" during Sunday's protest.

Lurie accused those gathered outside the synagogue of displaying "anger, vitriol and violence." A police liaison to the city's Jewish community, Lurie said local officials should consider whether blocking access to a place of worship during a protest should be viewed as an act of hate that could be prosecuted.

“It feels to me like we’re moving into an area where that specific action could be considered a hate crime," Lurie said, "so we’re going to look into what might be filing criteria for that."

Councilmember Katy Yaroslavsky introduced a motion during a Tuesday L.A. City Council meeting to find more resources for security services at places of worship.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.