Soldier of dignity: Slain in Syria, Michael Israel remembered as a heartbeat of Sacramento activism

Prolific labor activist was on his second volunteer tour with Kurdish militia

This is an extended version of a story that ran in the December 8, 2016, issue.

Labor and human rights activist Michael Israel was remembered during a December 4 vigil in Sacramento as a selfless, fearless engine for change. Israel was killed last week while volunteering to fight ISIS alongside a Kurdish militia in northern Syria.

Israel, 27, was on his second trip in two years to fight with the men and women of YPG International, or the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit, a leftist Kurdish resistance force defending the territory of Rojava from Islamic State fighters.

On November 28, a Kurdish commander with YPG told Voice of America that a volunteer from the U.S. had been killed, but didn’t disclose the man’s name. In the early morning hours of November 29, YPG International announced on social media that Israel, along with a German volunteer named Anton Leschek, had been killed on the front lines.

An administrator of YPG International’s Facebook account confirmed separately to both SN&R and one of Israel’s friends in Sacramento that the news was true. The same administrator told SN&R that Israel’s family in California had been notified.

Israel grew up 50 minutes east of Sacramento in Amador County. For more than seven years, he was involved in major protests around the capital, with a passion for workers’ rights, health care reform and social justice initiatives. He was a constant presence in Northern California’s Occupy movement, taking part in demonstrations from Cesar Chavez Plaza to rural Sonora in Tuolumne County. He was also active with Sacramento’s Industrial Workers of the World.

A critic of fascism, Israel was among the demonstrators to protest a permitted gathering of white supremacists at the state Capitol on June 26.

Friends said that his reason for volunteering to fight in Syria was to guard a free, independent Kurdish socialist movement in Rojava under constant threat from ISIS.

SN&R had been in contact with Israel through a messaging service while he was fighting with YPG. Though the internet connection was spotty and sporadic for Israel, he had agreed to sit down for an interview about the conditions on the ground in Syria upon returning home. On August 20, Israel told SN&R he expected to be back in the United States around late January.

During Sunday’s vigil, held at Organize Sacramento’s office on Broadway, scores of friends and activists remembered Israel as a friendly young man driven by his convictions.

“He was an amazing guy,” said retired labor organizer Jimmy Laughton. “If he was alive right now, he wouldn’t even be here tonight, he’d be in North Dakota, standing alongside the Sioux. Mike never stood still—he had the fire in him.”

Several members of Sacramento’s Kurdish community attended the vigil to pay their respects for Israel’s sacrifice.

David Roddy, one of Israel’s closest friends, told the mourners it’s a sacrifice some journalists failed to comprehend.

“Some of the reporters made comments to me about Mike’s decision and death seeming so random,” Roddy said. “But if they knew the history of people like [union labor activist] Joe Hill and what his songs meant to Mike, or what it meant for Mike to have met someone who was in the Lincoln Brigade, then they would understand. Mike’s death is not random at all in context of a generations-long struggle for human dignity.”

Israel is reportedly the fourth American to die this year fighting ISIS alongside Syrian Kurds. The U.S. State Department has yet to issue an official confirmation of Israel’s death.