Pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel protesters clash outside a synagogue in Los Angeles, June 23, 2024. (Shay Horse/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel protesters clash outside a synagogue in Los Angeles, June 23, 2024. (Shay Horse/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Biden denounces violence during pro-Palestinian protest outside Los Angeles synagogue

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(JTA) — President Joe Biden and a chorus of other elected officials condemned antisemitism after violent clashes erupted outside of a Los Angeles synagogue on Sunday between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel protesters.

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

Video of the clashes outside the Adas Torah synagogue — where one person was arrested — has spread globally, provoking outrage and denunciations of a “pogrom” in the heavily Jewish neighborhood of Pico-Robertson. While pro-Palestinian street protests with strident rhetoric have occurred frequently in major cities across the globe, Sunday’s was notable for featuring a significant contingent of pro-Israel counter-protesters and devolving into physical violence outside a synagogue.

“Today is a dark stain in the history of Los Angeles,” local attorney Sam Yebri, a former candidate for local office, wrote in a widely circulated post. The pro-Palestinian protesters, he wrote, “brazenly terrorized Jewish Angelenos with impunity and without any consequence. These violent masked domestic terrorists bludgeoned Jews, vandalized synagogues, schools and stores, keyed cars, assaulted anyone who appeared Jewish.”

Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass called the incident “abhorrent” in a statement posted on X, and wrote that she had “called on LAPD to provide additional patrols” in the neighborhood and at other local houses of worship. Gov. Gavin Newsom and other elected officials also condemned the incident.

“I want to be clear that Los Angeles will not be a harbor for antisemitism and violence,” Bass wrote. “Those responsible for either will be found and held accountable.”

Adas Torah, an Orthodox synagogue, was hosting an Israeli real estate fair by My Home in Israel, the same group whose events have attracted protests at other synagogues in North America. The Palestinian Youth Movement organization called for a protest of the L.A. event on social media, circulating the synagogue’s address.

Gidon Katz, a producer for the Israeli real estate event, said police in Los Angeles had restricted access to a previous My Home in Israel event to combat protests but on Sunday allowed protesters to gather.

“They literally came to the door of the building, and they were very, very, very noisy, and it was pretty frightening, I must say,” Katz said Monday from the airport where he was preparing to board a flight back to Israel.

Pro-Palestinian activists gathered outside the synagogue around 10:30 a.m. Sunday, according to Los Angeles police officer Tony Im, blocking the building’s entrance. Pro-Israel counter-protesters quickly arrived on the scene. Video and eyewitness accounts posted online depict skirmishes breaking out among the dueling protests. Multiple instances of pepper- or bear-spray are evident from the footage.

Police, some of whom wore riot gear and used batons, eventually declared the fracas an unlawful assembly and cleared the crowd away from Adas Torah. But the chaos continued for several hours as protesters spilled onto neighboring streets and yelling and pushing continued. According to L.A.’s local CBS affiliate KCAL, the protesters eventually dispersed around 5 p.m.

One protester was arrested for allegedly wielding “a spiked post,” which is prohibited during protests. The LAPD said in a statement that it would also be investigating two reports of battery.

“We will always protect the First Amendment rights of those wanting to protest,” the statement said. “Violence and crime however, will not be tolerated.”

Katz, too, said he could tolerate protests of his events within bounds.

“It’s a free world. I’m not trying to avoid anyone’s First Amendment, neither the Jews nor the Palestinians. And if they want to respectfully protest, then they’ve got the right to do so,” he said. “We oppose violence and we oppose the fact that they tried to block people from coming in.”

Sunday’s incident is the latest in a string of violent clashes that have occurred in Los Angeles related to the Israel-Hamas war. A pro-Israel protester died last year after an altercation at a protest. Similar clashes have broken out at L.A.’s Museum of Tolerance, its Holocaust museum and at both the UCLA and the University of Southern California.

While indignation over Sunday’s event has mounted, some details are still unclear — including how the clashes escalated and the identity of the arrested protester, who was released and who the LAPD said would not be identified publicly.

Bass, who will speak at a press conference Monday afternoon at the Museum of Tolerance, said she would be meeting with other elected officials and Jewish community leaders to discuss next steps. The Jewish Federation of Los Angeles sent out a statement Sunday night saying its Community Security Initiative was “monitoring the situation and working with our local law enforcement partners to make sure our community are kept safe.”

An LAPD spokesperson said he was not aware of calls for extra police protection ahead of the event. But some Jewish leaders said they felt exposed. Rabbi Hertzel Illulian, the founder of the JEM Community Center in nearby Beverly Hills, told KCAL that the violence “doesn’t belong here.”

“I don’t think the Jewish would go in front of a mosque or the Christian people would go in front of a mosque to do such a thing, nobody would accept this,” Illulian said. “But here, when it comes to Jews and Israel everything is kosher, everything is OK.”

Jacob Gurvis
Jacob Gurvis

Jacob Gurvis is JTA’s Audience Engagement Editor, based in Los Angeles. He graduated from Boston University, where he studied journalism, Jewish studies, and political science. Jacob has written for The Boston Globe and The Beverly Hills Courier, and he produced an award-winning sports talk show in college. He spends too much time on Twitter @jacobgurvis.