Slain journalist’s backers scoured the Web to erase mention of his ties to Israel

Steven Sotloff

By ALEXANDRA ZAVIS AND BATSHEVA SOBELMAN | Los Angeles Times (MCT) | Published: September 6, 2014

JERUSALEM — Danielle Berrin was watching the video of journalist James Foley’s brutal killing at the hands of Islamic militants when a familiar face flashed across the screen.

“I paused the video in panic,” the Los Angeles-based reporter would later write in the Jewish Journal. “I know that face, I thought. It’s older and rounder than I remember, sallow from fear, but I know that face.”

Until that moment, Berrin had not known that Steven J. Sotloff, the playful, mischievous kid she knew growing up in suburban Miami, had been taken hostage while working as a freelance journalist in Syria in August 2013. Yet there he was on his knees, with a black-hooded, knife-wielding fighter introducing him as the likely next victim of the extremist group Islamic State.

So effective was the news blackout that had been imposed at the request of Sotloff’s family that Berrin was one of many friends and fellow journalists who had no idea he’d been abducted until the video of Foley’s killing surfaced Aug. 19.

Families and governments often request that the identities of hostages taken abroad be kept out of the public eye so as not to jeopardize negotiations or a rescue attempt. Indeed, the names of a number of other Westerners captured in Syria are largely unknown to the general public.

But Sotloff’s case carried an entirely different level of peril: He was Jewish, and an Israeli citizen. Being held by Islamic militants whose credos often call for the destruction of the Jewish state, his identity, if known to them, could have hastened his demise.

There was precedent: When Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was executed by al-Qaida in Pakistan in 2002, he was forced to make a statement for the camera professing his Jewish heritage.

So began a campaign that spanned months, as a network of friends and supporters — according to one Israeli news outlet, it included as many as 150 people working in 20 languages — scoured the Internet to expunge any reference to what had been a central part of Sotloff’s identity. Military censors in Israel imposed a ban on disclosing his Israeli citizenship.

“We had two missions,” one of Sotloff’s friends was quoted as saying on the Ynet news site. “To locate all of his friends worldwide — and he had many — and make sure they don’t talk to journalists. In addition, we had to convince journalists who were writing about him to cooperate with us and remove any connection between him and Israel or Judaism.”

When references to Sotloff’s religion appeared in a profile on The New York Times web site, the paper was asked and agreed to remove them.

Sotloff apparently tried to hide his faith from his captors, although a fellow hostage said he managed to sneak in prayers and to fast on Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement.

“He told them he was sick and did not want to eat, even though that day we were served eggs,” the unidentified former captive was quoted as saying by the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot.

The grandson of Holocaust survivors, Sotloff attended the elementary school at Temple Beth Am in Pinecrest, Fla., where his mother was a teacher and where hundreds of people attended a memorial service for him Friday under heavy security.

He spent several years in Israel, during which he studied foreign affairs at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya and played for a local rugby team. He wrote for a number of Israeli news outlets, in addition to Western publications such as Time magazine and the Christian Science Monitor.

But it was only on Wednesday, the day after a video of his killing surfaced, that the world learned the extent of his ties to Israel. A Foreign Ministry spokesman, Paul Hirschson, tweeted, “Cleared for publication: Steven Sotloff was (hashtag)Israel citizen RIP.”

None of that was news to those who worked with him, said Matthew Kalman, a former editor of the Jerusalem Report, which took dispatches from Sotloff from Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen. “We took a collective vow of silence, fearing that his kidnappers might seize on that fascinating personal history as an excuse to kill him,” he wrote in a post on the Haaretz website.

He wonders now whether silence was the best weapon. “Perhaps public action or outrage would have been more effective in spurring action,” he said in an interview. “I am frustrated and appalled that this happened on our watch.... As journalists, we must stop treating (Islamic State) as a story and show them for what they are, pure evil.”

Berrin discovered the extent of the effort to protect Sotloff when she saw the Foley video. Recalling that they had reconnected on Facebook in 2010, she went looking for his page on the social media site and for the messages they had exchanged in the years before his capture. She could find no trace of them.

Scrolling through her e-mail inbox, she found a message from Sotloff with a link to an article he had written for The Jerusalem Post about the resurgent Jewish community in Vienna. But when she clicked on the link, the article was gone.

Berrin herself became complicit, agreeing to initially remove from her article in The Jewish Journal a reference to Sotloff’s Israeli passport.

She finds some of the attention now to his religious and national identity troubling.

“I think it’s very tricky for anyone to suggest that because he was Jewish or Israeli, that somehow he shouldn’t have been doing what he was doing,” she said. “Steven was driven by a deep sense of mission to illuminate human suffering and tell stories of people who are struggling against all odds in some of the most dangerous and darkest parts of the world.... And that, the very instinct to do so, comes from a deep Jewish consciousness.”

Those who met him in Israel recalled a bright young man who was deeply curious about the region, struggled a bit in Hebrew, learned some Arabic and engaged in heated debates with his peers.

Fascinated by the “Arab Spring” uprisings that convulsed the region, Sotloff felt compelled to see and experience them first-hand, according to Michael Sapir, an American-born Israeli and fellow rugby player who befriended him in 2005.

Oren Kessler, a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society think tank in London, struck up a virtual friendship with Sotloff while working as an Arab affairs correspondent for the Jerusalem Post. Although they never managed to meet in person, he said, they corresponded at length in the two years before Sotloff’s abduction.

“In one exchange, I asked him what a journalist like him with an obviously Jewish name — and with connections to Israel — was doing in Libya, or in his previous haunts of Yemen and Bahrain,” Kessler wrote for Politico magazine. “‘I don’t really share my values and opinions,’ he replied. ‘I try to stay alive.’”

He even resorted at one point to a fake Islam conversion, Kessler said, a decision intended to help him blend into the Arab world but which he would later laugh off.

“When I suggested that the jig would be up if someone as much as Googled his name, he replied simply, ‘Yeah, Google definitely isn’t my friend.’

Although the effort by Sotloff’s friends couldn’t save him, Kessler said in an interview, “I tip my hat to what they did while he was still alive. If they hadn’t, perhaps Steven might have been executed sooner and perhaps endured even worse torments before he died.”

©2014 Los Angeles Times / Distributed by MCT Information Services

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