Californian killed in Syria is remembered as humble, dedicated to Kurdish cause

He was a committed activist, as well as a “real funny guy,” according to his colleagues on the front lines in northern Syria. To his comrades in arms, he was a good fighter, one who said he feared cameras more than bullets.

And to friends at home in Northern California, Michael Israel was “loving,” “humble” and “just a good person.”

"He's the finest young man, human being, I've ever had the privilege of knowing," said Mary Lou Molina, a resident of Pine Grove in Amador County who said she had known Israel since 2012.

Israel, 27, an American volunteer with the Syrian Kurdish militia known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, was killed last week in a Turkish airstrike, a Kurdish faction and its commanders said Thursday.

Israel, who had taken the Kurdish nom de guerre Robin Agiri, joined the YPG in June, its officials said. The group is the main component of the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, a loose alliance of Syrian Arab and Kurdish factions that has emerged as the U.S.’s main proxy force to battle Islamic State in Syria.

Although the U.S. has embedded special forces units with the YPG, the faction has also attracted a number of American volunteers who consider its fight against Islamic State as a prelude to the establishment of what the fighters call Rojava, an independent Kurdish state on Syrian territory.

Turkey counts the YPG as a branch of the restive Kurdish separatists it is fighting on its own soil and has waged a large-scale air campaign against it, even while supporting other Syrian rebel factions to claw back territory from Islamic State.

Sherwan Darwish, spokesman of the SDF-aligned Manbij Military Council, said in an interview that Israel, along with a German national, Anton Leschek, and 10 others, had been killed last Thursday when Turkish jets struck their position near the front line against Islamic State.

He said they were near Arima, a village 13 miles northeast of the Islamic State-held city of Bab.

“They didn’t expect to be attacked since they weren’t in a front line against the Turkish-backed rebels but against Daesh, so they had not taken precautions against airstrikes,” said Darwish in a conversation via Facebook, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

"Robin Agiri ... [was one] of the first international volunteers who stood along Manbij people defying Turkish army and affiliated terrorists," said the Manbij Military Council in a statement issued Thursday.

There were contradictory reports as to whether Israel was killed immediately or died from his wounds two days later.

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It was Israel’s second trip to northern Syria to fight with the YPG.

His friends — in Syria and at home in California — paid tribute to his memory in the hours after the announcement of his death, calling him a hero.

The Manbij Military Council circulated a video of a bashful Israel speaking to the camera and declaring he was “here to defend the People’s Revolution of Rojava and fight for the struggle here.”

“He was one of the rare people who really came here to work. You could count people like that on the fingers of one hand, those who were totally committed,” said Israel’s former commander in a phone interview. The commander, who oversees Western volunteers, declined to give her name, citing security.

“And he had a good heart: I don’t remember a day where Michael had offended anyone,” she said.

Israel was born in Lodi and later moved with his family to Amador County, in the mother lode country east of Sacramento, according to Valarie Roddy, who said she had known Israel since he met her son, David, in middle school. The two were best friends, she said.

Israel had been politically involved since high school, even missing his graduation to trek from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., as part of a march to protest the Iraq war, she recalled.

Israel was also a labor activist and organizer, Roddy said.

"He was very much in favor of the working man and very much fighting for better working conditions for Americans," she said. 

"When he heard about this fight [in Syria] ... he just felt very, very strongly that this was like a cornerstone of fighting for democracy,” she added. “He felt very strongly and very much in tune with these people."

"His soul was there," said David Roddy, now a Sacramento resident. "That's where he found peace, with those people and that struggle."

Molina, the Pine Grove woman, said she met Israel during a march for women’s healthcare choices and rights. 

Molina described him as good, gentle, brilliant and kind. She recalled seeing him in Jackson when he was on a trip home from Syria.

"Among many things that he said, and I can't remember them all, is he loved the people," Molina said. "I kind of felt in my heart that he would go back, but I hoped that he wouldn't."

In August, after returning for a second time to Syria, Israel wrote on his Facebook page: “The Rojava struggle is the most dynamic and groundbreaking revolutionary movement of our time.

“I am determined that it is the job of leftist allies and internationalists to rally behind this movement, to help build it up and learn from it.”

He also spoke of more prosaic hopes.

“Someday,” he wrote, “my wish will be granted and I'll join a village like this and spend my days chasing sheep across Syria's hills.”

Valarie Roddy said she was devastated by news of Israel’s death.

“I think everybody that knew Michael is pretty devastated,” she said. “He was very loving, very humble. He was always thinking of others. I don’t know that he ever even thought about himself. I think he just was here for others.”

Special correspondent Bulos reported from Amman and Times staff writer Mejia from Los Angeles. Special correspondent Umar Farooq in Istanbul, Turkey, contributed to this report.

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UPDATES:

1:40 p.m.: This article has been updated with comments from Israel’s friends in California.

This article was originally posted at 11 a.m.

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