Murdered journalist Steven Sotloff was a hero – and my friend
I paused the video in panic when I saw his face: I know that face, I thought. It’s older and rounder than I remember, sallow from fear, but I know that face. What the f— is it doing in a terrorist propaganda video in which an American journalist is being gruesomely beheaded? For a moment, my mind was a muddle: The face I recognized – gentle-looking, sweet, but painfully stricken – was being named as ISIS’s next target. Who is this person? And why do I have this sinking feeling?
I stared at his face. At the young man on his knees, hands tied behind his back, while a menacing killer sheathed in head-to-toe black hovered over him, pulling his blood-orange shirt so tight it choked his neck. An instant later, a wave of heat swept over my skin as his name appeared on the screen in English and Arabic: Steven Sotloff.
It can’t be him.
Not the Steven Sotloff I grew up with, the goofy, smiley, playfully mischievous kid from Miami I hadn’t seen in more than 15 years. I clicked over to Facebook to dig through my message archives; I remember corresponding with Sotloff a few years ago when he discovered I was working as a writer for the Jewish Journal. He was a writer, too, as I recalled. But my Facebook query turned up nothing; an email exchange I was certain we’d had was completely missing. I moved over to Gmail, searching for some trace of “Steven Sotloff”; two items popped up. The first was a Facebook friend request from Steven from November 2010: “Hey buddy! Long long long time no see. What are you up to in LA? I've been in the Middle East for the past 6 years gaining knowledge about the world. I'm moving back to the States at the end of the year. Hopefully we'll bump into each other sometime!”
The other item, just above it, was The New York Times email digest for Aug. 20, 2014. I didn’t have to open that one.
The Steven Sotloff who appeared in the video showing the beheading of freelance journalist James Foley, and who was cursed as next to die, was the same Jewish kid I grew up with in Miami, where we both attended day school at Temple Beth Am. I clicked back over to Facebook, because even though my correspondence with Sotloff had apparently been scrubbed, with no trace of him remaining on the social network, I remembered that one of our friends’ mothers had posted photos of our 1st grade class, which had to still be there. I pulled it up and there he was: 8-year-old Steven Sotloff. He had been untagged from the photo. Already a ghost.
I called Temple Beth Am, the synagogue in Miami where we grew up and where Steven’s mother, Shirley, daughter of Holocaust survivors, has been a teacher in the Early Childhood Center for something like 20 years. I was desperate for answers and was told, yes, they were aware of the situation; no, they couldn’t say anything further. I reached out to friends and teachers. I left a voicemail for my rabbi asking him to call me back. I wondered how long he had known – rabbis can be very good keepers of secrets.
While I waited, I searched for more “Steven Sotloff.” In my Jewish Journal inbox I found an article Steven sent me in February 2011. The subject line, “Viennese Jews” referred to an article he wrote about the resurgent Jewish community in Vienna for The Jerusalem Post.
“Hey Danielle! I hope all is going well for you out in Hollywood. I know you're into Jewish news and thought you may be interested in my recent piece on the Jews of Vienna… Let me know how you're doing!”
It doesn’t appear I wrote back that time, which now makes me feel irreparably awful. As I re-read his article, I found echoes of Steven’s voice, and even an unconscious presaging of his own destiny:
“In the past Vienna’s beleaguered Jews were threatened by Christian and Nazi persecutions; today they are under siege by a melange of native extremism and Muslim hostility,” he wrote.
“Despite such hostilities, the Viennese Jewish community has refused to relent in the face of such adversity and emigrate to more hospitable lands free of the turmoil that has plagued this city that was once Europe’s cultural and intellectual mecca.”
Steven, too, “refused to relent” in the face of roiling hostilities in the Middle East; rather than cower from danger, he flew right into it, intent on telling the stories he believed would shape history. “He was always a bit of a risk-taker, I remember him trying to push edges,” a friend from Miami told me, requesting anonymity to respect the wishes of Sotloff’s family. According to friends, Sotloff vacillated before finally deciding to leave the U.S. to cover the civil war in Syria. He was concerned about what to do with his Israeli passport. His parents didn’t want him to go.
“He really felt that this was who he was; he said he had to do this,” a friend told me. “He felt compelled to put a human face on war stories.”
Just before Steven disappeared in August 2013, he checked into room 303 at the Hotel Istanbul, four miles north of the Turkish-Syrian border, according to journalist Ben Taub who wrote an account of Steven’s last-seen days for The Daily Beast.
“Sotloff had been to Kilis before. He’d been to Syria in wartime, too. And in the recent years leading up to the date of his abduction, he’d also reported courageously in Libya, Egypt, and Yemen. He was experienced. He could speak Arabic. He was careful. And he told me he had had enough.
“Over beers at Kilis’s only bar, Sotloff told me he was sick of being beaten up, and shot at, and accused of being a spy,” Taub wrote. “Just the day before, Turkish police had hit and pepper-sprayed him for taking pictures at a protest in a nearby city. He told me he wanted to quit reporting for a little while, at least on conflict in the Middle East, and maybe apply to graduate school back home in Florida. But first he wanted one last Syria run. He said he was chasing a good story…”
No one knows for sure exactly how Steven disappeared. According to Taub, he arranged to meet with a fixer named Karam who would drive him into Syria, but Karam may have been compromised; earlier that week, an inexperienced Canadian photographer who had been naïve about what he’d find in a conflict zone may have brought unwanted attention to the fixer. Friends in Miami say Steven had befriended a journalist from Turkey, who called his family after his disappearance and told them he had entered Syria with a “driver.” Maybe the driver had betrayed him. Or is it possible the driver and the fixer were one and the same?
After Steven disappeared, his family was connected with contacts in Washington, who were supposed to help the situation. The advice the family got was to keep his disappearance quiet, the better to negotiate a possible ransom, and to erase any trace of his Jewish identity from the Web. They were told that ISIS “probably didn’t know or wasn’t sure that Sotloff was Jewish and knowing that he was Jewish would be like another Daniel Pearl situation, so let’s not give them that information,” a friend from home said.
That explains why Sotloff’s Facebook account disappeared, and why, when ISIS finally outed his capture, the New York Times deleted the reference to Sotloff’s Jewishness that was posted in its initial online report. Stupidly, the Times had announced he was “the grandson of Holocaust survivors” in the lead sentence, which the paper had learned from his mother’s bio on the Temple Beth Am website (that too, however, was superficially erased, even though it turned out, nothing ever really disappears from the Web).
Not that any of those little protections matter now. On the morning of Sept. 2, the 7th of Elul, the news broke that ISIS had kept their poisonous promise and beheaded Sotloff, just like they had done with journalist James Foley two weeks prior. My heart broke for my friend Steven, for the terror, fear and anxiety he must have felt all year long; for the stories and insights he must have been burning to write but was instead left bereft. And my heart broke for his family, especially for his mother Shirley, whose video plea less than a week before his death could not convince ISIS to act with even a speck of mercy. “As a mother… I ask you to use your authority to spare his life and to follow the example set by the Prophet Muhammad who protected People of the Book…”
I pray that somewhere in that desperate wilderness, some time during that hopeless wandering, Steven found strength and comfort. Mima'amakim keraticha adonai … Out of the depths I call to you, hear my voice …
I don’t know if God answered Steven. All I know is that Steven had Godliness within him: he was a searching, sensitive, inquisitive soul and a hero. I know that his blood, like all Jewish blood, will be remembered. And that if his death awakens the world to the evil proliferating among those who killed him, then maybe, just maybe, there can be redemption.