The Jewish and Israeli background of slain American journalist Steven Sotloff, who was beheaded by the Islamic State terrorist organization this week, has featured prominently in reports about his death.
But in the many months of his captivity leading up to the execution, a gruesome video of which was released by IS on Tuesday, the reporter’s friends and acquaintances made every effort to cover up that aspect of his biography, for fear that it would cost him his life. In Israel, a gag order was placed on the information; The Times of Israel held its own story for several weeks out of fear of endangering Sotloff’s life by writing about his Jewish and Israeli connections.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Foreign Ministry cleared for publication the fact that Sotloff had held Israeli citizenship. Only then did the extent of the hush-up become apparent.
On Thursday, Israeli news site Ynet revealed that Sotloff’s friends had worked together since his disappearance in Syria to remove any trace or mention of his Jewish background and Israeli citizenship and ties, hoping that it would increase his chances of survival and prevent the conditions of his captivity from worsening in a restive and lawless region becoming increasingly overrun by violent jihadist groups.
The report revealed that a group of 150 of Sotloff’s friends and acquaintances, speaking 20 different languages, teamed up to meticulously scan Facebook posts and tweets for any mention of the Jewish and Israeli connection — trying to keep Sotloff out of harm’s way and save his life the only way they could, from afar.
“We had two missions: 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, so his ISIS kidnappers don’t find out his background,” the news site quoted one of Sotloff’s friends as saying.
The group reportedly sought out articles Sotloff had written for Israeli and Jewish publications, such as the Jerusalem Report and other magazines, and had them removed, with media outlets responding favorably to their requests.
“We’ve found articles on the internet mentioning Steven’s Jewish roots and we reached out to reporters and editors. We managed to remove a mention from The New York Times, we got a lot out of newspapers in Florida. We’ve spoken to editors and journalists who agreed to protect Steven’s life,” a second friend reportedly said.
He added, “We found out journalists care, and they helped us protect Steven. The entire world was a part of our bond of silence.”
According to the report, Sotloff’s family was also advised to ensure no mention was made of Sotloff’s Jewish roots.
Sotloff, a Jewish native of Miami and the grandson of Holocaust survivors, came to Israel in 2008 to pursue his undergraduate degree at the IDC, where he studied government. After graduation, he began a freelance journalism career, filing stories for both the Jerusalem Post and Jerusalem Report before moving on to outlets including Foreign Policy and TIME.
As the Arab world was roiling, Sotloff began chasing its endless stories. As a freelancer, he traveled to Yemen, Libya and Egypt to chronicle the peoples’ uprising and dictatorial downfalls cascading across the Middle East, and then the surge of vicious new radicalism that came in their wakes. Eventually, his work took him to Syria, where he went missing on August 4, 2013 — not long after his last visit to Israel for the 2013 Maccabiah Games.
His family knew that he had been kidnapped, but chose to keep the story quiet and rally for his release behind the scenes. Only on August 19, when a horrific video showing the barbaric beheading journalist James Foley at the hands of IS surfaced on YouTube, did the world learn that IS was also holding Sotloff.
Sotloff was apparently captured by IS in Aleppo and held in Raqqa for nearly a year. In the video of Foley’s death, which showed Sotloff with a shaved head and wearing the same kind of orange jumpsuit as Foley, the IS terrorists gave US President Barack Obama 24 hours to respond to the situation, threatening that they would take Sotloff’s life next.
On Wednesday, the White House determined that a second video, this time showing the brutal beheading of Sotloff, was authentic.
Sotloff’s citizenship did not appear to have influenced his fate. Nor did his religion, which he managed to observe during his captivity without his captors noticing.
A former fellow captive said this week that Sotloff had fasted on Yom Kippur last year without his Islamist captors discovering he was Jewish, by telling them he was sick and didn’t want to eat that day, despite the fact that the captives were served eggs — a treat.
The ex-prisoner said the reporter tried to keep to some Jewish traditions, covertly praying toward Jerusalem by observing which way the Muslims were facing during prayer and changing the direction slightly.
Debra Kamin and Lazar Berman contributed to this report.