It was a passion for the Kurdish cause that drove Californian Michael Israel to fight on the front lines in northern Syria against the Islamic State group.
Israel, 26, died fighting for that mission.
Kurdish authorities late this week identified Israel and German national Anton Leschek as two foreign volunteer fighters killed last month while fighting with a Kurdish militia against IS.
Israel, who called himself by a Kurdish name, Robin Agiri, was traveling November 24 with a Kurdish unit of the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, near Arima, a village 13 miles northeast of the IS-held city of al-Bab. The unit came under attack from a Turkish airstrike.
Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist organization and an extension of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, in Turkey. Ankara fears that a strong Kurdish entity in northern Syria will empower Kurdish rebels in Turkey who are engaged in a bloody conflict with Turkish forces.
Contacted by VOA, Turkish authorities would not confirm that attack. But a high-ranking Turkish military official in Ankara, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Turkey was aware of foreigners fighting within Kurdish units in Syria
“If he had a connection with terrorist organizations in Syria, it is possible that he may have been hit during an air attack,” the official said, referring to the YPG.
Shervan Derwish, spokesman for the YPG-aligned Manbij Military Council, said the unit suffered at least 10 casualties.
“Michael and Anton died two days after the attack, suffering from severe wounds,” Derwish told VOA.
Despite having no military training, Israel went to Syria in August 2015 to participate in a major battle against IS, according to a friend and Kurdish officials. He returned home to California, before going back to Syria for a second time in July, his friends and fellow fighters said.
In a video posted on YPG International Brigade’s Facebook page, Israel said he went to Syria to help the Kurdish people.
“I’m here to defend the people’s revolution of Rojava,” Israel said, using the Kurdish name for YPG-controlled territories in Syria, “and fight against the enemies of the struggle here.”
Hanna Bowman, a Canadian who also fought for Syrian Kurds, said she met Israel last year at a training academy for new international volunteers.
“He understood that it was more than a fight against IS,” she told VOA. “He knew it was bigger than that. He knew the Kurds were also building a new society where people are equal and in control of their own futures instead of being dictated to by the government. … I was impressed with his understanding of gender equality and the patriarchal system that the Kurds were trying to destroy.”
Kurdish officials announced the death of an American volunteer on Monday but withheld Israel’s name until relatives in the United States could be contacted.
When Israel’s name became public Thursday, friends in California hailed him as a “hero” and recalled his sense of humor and dedication to the Kurds.
Israel grew up in a mostly rural part of northern California where he developed a passion for advocating for justice for oppressed and impoverished peoples of the world, said David Roddy, a Sacramento resident, who met him in middle school.
Roddy said that as he and Israel were growing up, they read many books together about many parts of the world, and “we didn’t like many things that we saw.”
Anne Colman, principal of Mountain Oaks Charter School, from which Israel graduated in 2007, said Israel had a unique international outreach.
“He was a global citizen who was morally upright,” said Colman, who taught Israel from the eighth to 12th grades.
Israel missed his graduation ceremonies, she said, because “he walked all the way from California to the East Coast to promote peace.”
Home for short break
Colman said that she ran into Israel in a coffee shop shortly after he returned from his first trip to Syria. In the brief meeting, Israel told Colman that he was in Syria to bake for the fighters.
“I believe he was telling the same thing to his family and friends so they won’t be scared,” she said. “But everybody knew he was there to fight. … What was happening in Syria was like it was happening in his backyard. Michael cared about the world.”
Israel’s family has so far declined to publicly comment.
Kurdish officials have said they are in contact with authorities at the U.S. Embassy in Iraq to arrange for the transfer of Israel’s body to the United States.
Friends say Israel expressed no regret in fighting for the Kurds despite the dangers.
“He believed in Rojava and their righteous revolution,” said childhood friend Roddy.