Questions linger about death of Israel activist in San Francisco

"Given that he was a relatively well-known public figure for Israel advocacy he would have people who strongly disagreed with the causes he stood up for."

Daniel Kliman (photo credit: )
Daniel Kliman
(photo credit: )
SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) - Police said this week that the mysterious death of an outspoken pro-Israel activist appeared to be accidental, but friends and family of Dr. Daniel Kliman insist he was the victim of foul play. "We almost expected something would happen to him at some point, given his activism and trips to Israel," said Kliman's brother, Jonathan. "We didn't expect what seemed to have happened to him. It seems really odd, and I'm glad the investigations are continuing." Kliman's body was discovered December 1 at the bottom of an elevator shaft in the historic Sharon Building at 55 New Montgomery St. in San Francisco. Apparently it had been there for six days. Kliman, a 38-year-old internist who lived alone in Oakland, was supposed to leave for Israel on Thanksgiving, giving friends and family no reason to question his whereabouts. As of December 3, a San Francisco Police Department spokesman was saying that Kliman's death appeared to have been an accident, citing police Insp. Matt Krimsky's suggestion that Kliman died November 25 after climbing out of an elevator stuck between the sixth and seventh floors. Police have since formed a task force including officers from the hate crimes department and homicide unit to look into possible causes of Kliman's death. On November 25, a surveillance camera recorded Kliman waiting for an elevator in the lobby. Authorities continue to analyze that footage, plus other evidence they obtained from the scene. An autopsy report is pending. Kliman was taking classes at Pacific Arabic Resources on the seventh floor of the Sharon Building. It is unclear why he was in the building, as classes during the week of Thanksgiving had been canceled. "A number of us find the circumstances of his death rather suspicious," said Michael Harris, a longtime friend who helped found the advocacy group San Francisco Voice for Israel with Kliman. "Given that he was a relatively well-known public figure for Israel advocacy in the Bay Area, he would have people who strongly disagreed with the causes he stood up for. "Two days before he's going to Israel and [on] a day when there were no classes, why would he have been in the building?" Jonathan Bernstein, the director of the Central Pacific Region of the Anti-Defamation League, said December 3 that he had had several conversations with the San Francisco Police Department concerning the possible cause of Kliman's death. "[The police] clearly understood Dan's background and how he was a recognizable figure in the Jewish community and was often out there demonstrating against anti-Israel demonstrations," Bernstein said. "They understand why they need to look at this a little differently." Word of Kliman's death spread quickly throughout the Zionist community in the Bay Area and beyond. Harris said he was stunned to hear the news about Kliman, whom he met in 2003 when the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Relations Council rallied pro-Israel individuals to combat local anti-Zionist and anti-Israel protests. A year later Harris, Kliman and a number of local activists formed San Francisco Voice for Israel. The group, an affiliate of the StandWithUs national Israel advocacy organization, was dedicated to publicly denouncing anti-Israel sentiment. The passionate and take-charge Kliman designed and disseminated pro-Israel fliers and documented protests with a series of clips on YouTube. "Dan had a much larger-than-life personality," Harris said. "He was passionately committed to Israel. Without any question, he was the real driving force of San Francisco Voice for Israel." He added, "We would joke that Dan seemed to be somewhat incident-prone. He wouldn't start a confrontation, but he wouldn't back down from one either." Adamant about never owning a car, and very much against even riding in one - his father was killed in an automobile accident four years ago - Kliman would arrive at rallies throughout the Bay Area on his bicycle. Harris called him a "bicycle activist" who was reluctant to take car rides from anyone. Before moving to the Bay Area, Kliman founded St. Louis Critical Mass, a monthly protest ride that aimed to draw attention to how unfriendly the city was to bicyclists. During Bike Summer 1999, a huge celebration of bicycle culture, Kliman organized a post-ride Shabbat service in Duboce Park with prayer books and candles. "Jews and non-Jews stood in a circle and sang L'cha Dodi," recalled Katherine Roberts, who met Kliman when he traveled from Chicago to San Francisco for the bike event. "It was this wonderfully inclusive event, and incredibly unique and brilliant. It was the only Shabbat service I can remember." Roberts, a fellow bicycle activist, said she didn't always agree with her good friend Kliman or his feelings toward Israel, but their differences never interfered with the friendship. "If you have radical or philosophical differences, it usually causes a friction," Roberts said. "I never had that with Dr. Dan. He was a wonderful person - the only Orthodox gay vegetarian bicycling doctor I knew. I was so impressed with his uniqueness." An active member of Beth Jacob Congregation, an Orthodox synagogue near his home, Kliman always was involved when the temple had any pro-Israel programming. A shaken Rabbi Judah Dardik said this week he still feels as if Kliman is going to walk through his synagogue's doors. "Dan was a very lively, alive and vibrant person," Dardik said. "You really knew when he was in the room. To know he's not going to be in the room anymore is a big shocker." On more than one occasion, the rabbi asked Kliman to his home for Shabbat dinner. Dardik recalled that although Kliman found the meat on the table revolting, he still accepted the invitation. "Dan said he never ate anything that ever had a mother," Dardik said with a laugh. "He had a few causes that he fought for and cared about. He's someone I learned a lot from." Along with his brother, Kliman is survived by his mother, Edith, of Schenectady, N.Y. Kliman was predeceased by his father, Gerald.