The martyrdom of Steven Sotloff

“It is OK to be angry,” a reader scolded in an email I received over the weekend. 

“When I saw you waxing nostalgic for your friend who was murdered (not killed) by Islamic trash, I wish that you (and others) would show some anger and look into the camera, point a finger, and rage at those evil Bastards.” 

In contrast to my measured tone, he said: “A merchant showed anger at me once a long time ago for stealing a 59-cent pen.”

[Related: Murdered journalist Steven Sotloff was a hero]

Anger does have its uses. It is certainly an appropriate response to the death-by-beheading of my childhood friend, journalist Steven Sotloff, who is now one of three innocent captives gruesomely executed by the Islamic State (ISIS). There is something comforting in the tenor of anger; it caps the bottomlessness of grief by bringing direction and focus. When there is no consolation, anger supplies a reasoned response to pain. 

But in the aftermath of my friend’s death, I worry about the direction the anger is taking. Who is it serving to turn this man into a martyr?

At a memorial for Sotloff at Young Israel of North Beverly Hills last week, even the date of the gathering — Sept. 11 — was party to a larger strategy. “This is a teaching moment for the future of humankind,” Daryl Temkin, founder of the Israel Institute for Alternative Energy Advancement, declared at the beginning of the service, drawing unambiguous parallels between the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the terror ISIS is currently wreaking across Iraq and Syria.

It didn’t stop there. In between classical arrangements performed by Cantor Nati Baram and his all-male choir, speaker after speaker turned remembrance into something like a referendum.

Young Israel’s Rabbi Pini Dunner wove a modern-day fable of good versus evil through the Hebraic concepts of Kiddush HaShem — sanctifying God — and chillul HaShem – desecrating God. 

“Steven Sotloff was a glorifier of God,” Dunner said. “His evil murderers were desecrators of God.” 

Dunner compared Sotloff to the 10 rabbi-martyrs of Jewish history who also met gruesome ends when they were flayed, burned or beheaded by the Romans. “If you are killed because you are someone who is a glorifier of God,” Dunner said, “you have achieved the ultimate status of Kiddush HaShem” — the status of a martyr. 

Referring to the Yom Kippur liturgy that commemorates the 10 martyrs, Dunner made a special dispensation: “This year on Yom Kippur, we will add an 11th name to that list. We will add the name of Steven Sotloff.”  

Next, Rabbi Marvin Hier compared Sotloff to the “ordinary tour guide” of the Bible, who appears nameless in the Joseph story, but whose arrival at a moment of great consequence helps Joseph find his way into Egypt. This small act, Hier said, altered Jewish destiny. 

“When Steven’s murderers posted their beheading, they did not know this would become another 9/11 moment,” the founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center declared. “Sometimes ordinary people become transmitters of great messages that affect the entire world.”  

Hier then leapt from the personal to the political, ending his remonstration with a call to arms. “You need a military leader to put down ISIS,” Hier said. “People who commit massacres and destroy religious shrines … you can’t talk to people like that.”

As the memorial took on a more militant tone,  my eyes wandered up to the projected photo of Sotloff, pensively and peacefully looking out over a balcony in some metropolitan city (was it Tel Aviv?). I wondered what he’d make of the fact that his death was coalescing a cause; even a war-weary President Obama was moved to reassure a horrified public that he will “degrade and destroy” ISIS.  

I have no doubt Sotloff would be glad that his death is spilling attention on a region he loved, but combat was never his cause.

Some are so eager to slap their own meaning onto his death, they have forgotten to first mourn. It was bad enough to have to watch as his father, Arthur Sotloff, struggled through grief and pain to communicate even one coherent sentence to the crowd of 80 — at one point stepping away from the Skype session to fix himself a drink — but we also had to witness The Media Line founder Felice Friedson grill him on whether or not his son had converted to Islam. By that point, I, too, needed a drink.

It was nice that Friedson and her husband, Michael, announced the establishment of the Steven Sotloff Journalism Fund to help support the work of the many courageous journalists they employ, of which Sotloff had been one, who risk their safety daily to cover the cauldron-boil of the Middle East. It wasn’t as nice to also hear at the memorial about their organization’s record of accuracy on the casualty count from the recent Israel-Gaza war. 

Rather than stew in anger, many are seeking their own ways to make meaning out of this loss. Creating a legacy for a life cut short is one way to make loss matter. It is what Ruth and Judea Pearl, parents of slain Wall Street Journal journalist Daniel Pearl, have so elegantly done with the creation of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, which promotes their son’s values through journalism fellowships, youth education, public lectures and international concerts. 

It is unfair — and far too soon — for the Jewish community to decide the direction of Sotloff’s legacy. He wasn’t a martyr for the Jewish cause, although he may well have been a Jewish martyr for the cause of the world. 

Still, his family should not be robbed of their right to remember him as he was, absent the interference of who we want him to be.

Netanyahu following Briton’s beheading: ISIS, Hamas ‘branches of same poisonous tree’

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called ISIS and Hamas “branches of the same poisonous tree” after ISIS released a video showing the beheading of a British aid worker.

ISIS, or the Islamic State, on Saturday released a video showing the apparent murder of David Haines, who was kidnapped in Syria in March 2013 while working for the French Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development, or ACTED. Haines, 44, of Perth, Scotland, is the father of two.

“What’s the great difference between ISIS and Hamas? The great difference, supposedly, between ISIS and Hamas is that those, the former, lop heads off and the others shoot people in the head,” Netanyahu said Sunday morning while also offering condolences to the people of Britain.

Haines was shown nearly two weeks ago being threatened at the end of a video showing the beheading of Jewish-American journalist Steven Sotloff, who had dual Israeli citizenship.

The video released on Saturday, titled “A Message to the Allies of America,” shows British Prime Minister David Cameron presenting a speech about working with the Iraqi government and allied Kurdish Peshmerga forces against ISIS.

“This British man has to pay the price for your promise, Cameron, to arm the Peshmerga against the Islamic State,” said a masked man dressed in black with a British accent, who appears to be the same man who killed Sotloff and American journalist James Foley.

At the end of the video, a captive identified as British citizen Alan Henning was shown and threatened with death if Cameron continued to support the fight against ISIS.

Haines’ family had appealed to the kidnappers earlier in the day to contact them in order to secure his release.

Cameron called the beheading “an act of pure evil” and vowed to bring the killers to justice.


A rabbi’s eulogy for Steven Sotloff

“Is there a sorrow greater than this?” Rabbi Terry Bookman, senior rabbi at Temple Beth Am in Miami where I grew up, asked as he opened Friday's memorial service for slain journalist Steven Sotloff.

“Where’s our consolation?”

In his tribute to Steven, who was my friend, Rabbi Bookman asked the hard, rhetorical questions that often accompany grief:

“Can there be a lament greater than for a young life lost?”

During the 90-minute service, Bookman called upon the community to support Steven’s family – Arthur, Shirley and sister, Lauren Sotloff – as they begin to cope with their loss, and confront “joys unrealized, tasks undone, hopes aborted, growth arrested, love blighted, challenges still unmet,” according to notes taken by my sister, Jessi Berrin, who attended in my stead.

Through a relative, it was revealed during the service that Steven was able to smuggle two letters to his parents, through other captive journalists who were later released. In his final note, written last May, Steven wrote, “Stay positive and patient. If we aren't reunited, my hope is God will be merciful enough to reunite us in heaven.”

After the service, I wrote to Rabbi Bookman and asked if he would share his eulogy for Steven with Jewish Journal readers. He heartily agreed. 

It is customary in the Jewish tradition to follow the name of someone deceased with the phrase zichrono livracha (zichrona, for a female), abbreviated in writing as Z”l. It means “may his/her memory be a blessing. After my mother died, I learned from Leon Wieseltier’s “Kaddish” that the phrase was originally meant to be articulated, “May his/her memory be a blessing for life in the world to come.

Modern Jews, Wieseltier argues, shortened the locution and changed its meaning, so that the living would be blessed by a person’s memory. But really, Wieseltier writes, the rabbis meant the locution to be a blessing for the deceased — where they are; in the world to come.

Steven Sotloff was taken from the world too soon. He was too young to meet his ending. And with all the countless wonders he will never experience, I believe he needs that original blessing – the blessing for life in the world to come – so that his legacy and his light will shine and sustain him, as well as those who loved him, always.

EULOGY for Steven Sotloff
By Rabbi Terry Bookman
September 5, 2014

In June of this year I wrote, “ The Muslims of the world need to root out the cancerous jihadists in their midst…and until that time, I am afraid, the rights of minorities and women will be suppressed, terror will reign, and innocent blood will continue to be shed.”  On Tuesday of this week, though as a community we prayed for a far different outcome, we were horrified, anguished, and immensely saddened to learn that this cancer took the life of our Steven Sotloff.

For those of you who have suffered through this deadly disease, or watched a loved one ravaged by it, you know that cancer is truly evil.  It strikes randomly, young and old, male and female, rich and poor;  cancer does not care who you are or who you love; what you do, or what you stand for.  It grows, stealthily in our bodies and unless it is caught early, and fought with everything we have at our disposal, it will gradually take over until there is little left, and we are gone.

It is a bitter irony that Steven was their victim.  Of all people, Steven, whose smile was as big as his heart, was an idealistic young man whose only desire in his journalistic efforts was to bring a human face to the conflict.  Shored by his Jewish values, schooled by his beloved grandparents who survived the greatest genocide in the history of our people, nurtured by his family, and taught by our Day School and this synagogue, Steven believed deeply that ALL people were created in the image of God, the One God of all humanity.  We may call him Adonai, while others call upon Him as Jesus or Allah, but Steven knew we all have one Father, which makes us one family on earth.

Steven had deep respect for Islamic culture.  He became fluent in Arabic and read the passages in the Koran that call for peace on earth and the establishment of just communities that truly watch out for and care for everyone.  He felt the suffering of those who lived under despotic dictatorships which is why he wanted to tell their stories.  Which he did.  He went to places we only read about in the headlines, sought out people, became their voice.  And what a beautiful voice it was.  Honest, compassionate, empathic.  I was so proud of him.  He saw no barriers between himself and those about whom he wrote.  Truly.  And though aware of the danger, his confidence in the goodness that lies at each person’s core, helped him overcome his anxiety and fear. In the end, Steven was taken from us, not because of who he was, but because of what he represented—freedom, the acceptance of others, and the equality of all people regardless of race, creed, religion or national identity.

Steven was living his dream, his passion.  He loved to write, he loved people, and he loved to travel the world.  He was a proud and committed Jew, a loyal American and a citizen of Israel.  He felt at home wherever he went, and wherever he was, people felt comfortable with him.  Knowing Steven, I believe that while he was aware of the severity of his situation, that he was certain his captors would see the light and return him to his loving family.  That he would come home, settle down, marry, give his parents some grandchildren, his sister Lauren some nieces and nephews, and with that beautiful smile and slightly mischievous twinkle in his eye, tell stories of the days in which the world was in turmoil but where he found his inner peace.

When Arab Means Never Saying Sorry

In Muslim culture, during the Daheyah (sacrifice) feast, Muslims bring a lamb into the home for a ritual slaughter accompanied by the invocation, “Allahu Akbar,” in the presence of the family and the children.

Now we see the Daheyah of radical Islam to be Jews such as Nick Berg and Daniel Pearl who were beheaded with no mercy, accompanied by the same pious invocation. This is a perversion of Islam, but don’t expect an apology.

To expect Arab and Muslim leadership to apologize for the barbaric murder of Berg is a reflection of the West’s naievity and wrong expectations of Arab culture. In the Arab world to take responsibility and say sorry is taken as an unmanly sign of weakness that may get a person into more trouble.

Those who admit guilt, even if it is accidental, are given no mercy and may end up taking all the blame and being brutally punished. It is the norm for Arabs to deny a fact — however blatant — and blame others, rather than admit to the wrongdoing and apologize. Honesty is not rewarded.

President Bush apologized for the humiliation and abuse of Iraqi prisoners. His apology was taken by the Arab media and the Arab street as an admission of guilt and a sign of weakness. It was not appreciated as taking responsibility to find out the truth behind the events that happened due to the actions of a few Americans.

If 19 Americans had committed a terrorist act comparable to Sept. 11 and belonged to a terrorist American network against any nation on earth, the reactions on all sides would have been very different than what we have seen, due to our cultural differences. Any sitting U.S. president would apologize and take immediate action to stop the terror coming from America. Americans would be outraged.

In our politically correct, liberal culture, the media and academia would urge all of our citizens to a collective self-psychoanalysis to uncover the root causes of how we could have caused such evil behavior. They might find the American terrorists to be victims of the American culture that drove them to become monsters, and would blame themselves and everything American for their behavior.

A cultural war would break out, with each camp blaming the other for the creation of American terrorists. Money to fund studies would start pouring into college campuses and think tanks to get to the bottom of the issue.

This is not the case in the Arab world.

Terrorism is the direct result of the radical Islamist culture that is flourishing all over the Arab world and promoted by Arab media, governments, educational systems and religious leaders. Terrorists are given training camps, money, power and respect for doing God’s work for jihad.

Arabs understand that they cannot win a war against the West, and all they can succeed in doing is to indoctrinate one generation after another for martyrdom. Their secret weapon is the anger and rage of the Arab street. It is a powerful weapon that they treasure, and they will not allow the West to unmask the lies of the daily dose of fear and anger fed to the beast on the Arab street waiting for the next explosion.

How can anyone expect them to apologize for a deep-rooted cultural and religious mission to defeat or kill infidels, especially Jews? Most Arabs still blame Israel for Sept. 11 and even March 11 in Spain. How can we expect these countries to sincerely cooperate with the international community to end terror and its barbaric brutality?

Americans should stop judging other cultures with the American value system and especially stop expecting Arab Muslim culture to respond rationally according to Western standards. Arab power is derived from oil, terror and manipulative public relations campaigns. They know it, and we know it, so let us stop kidding each other with false expectations.

Most Arabs do understand America’s current dilemma in Iraq, and they do not want to sincerely help. They know we want to leave honorably after stabilizing the situation and a new Iraqi democratic government is in business.

We set a date in June to hand over power. You would think that if they sincerely want America to leave, they would be at their best behavior in order for the United States to have no excuse and leave, but the opposite is happening. They have increased their violence and attacks and brutality.

Many say, “We want a Vietnam with America” and can’t wait for an excuse to exhibit rage and violence. Arab media and the power behind it are promoting a bloody scenario. They want to see America leave humiliated, even if Iraqis benefited by the removal of Saddam Hussein, and even if it is at the expense of the Iraqi people and the region.

Above all, they do not want to see America, a non-Muslim superpower, as the cause for Iraq’s well-being, especially when all the Arab countries stood by doing nothing to stop Saddam’s brutal regime. Only Arab leaders should be heroes in the Arab world — not Bush. It is a matter of pride.

Arab media understand that America has no desire to occupy Iraq, but they never miss an opportunity to give the raging masses their daily dose of fear of America. “America Wants to Hand Over the Keys of Iraq to Sharon” was a recent headline in Egyptian newspapers. Arab games are exposed, and our leftist media should not cover up the game.

There are many reasons for Arab and Muslim silence. However, fear of speaking out is no longer a credible excuse. Day in and day out, all we see out of the Arab world is anger, revenge and a culture out of control.

The Arab street is afraid of Arab leaders, and Arab leaders afraid of the Arab street. And both can only get out their frustration on America, Europe, Israel and innocent victims such as Berg and Pearl.

Nonie Darwish is a writer and board member of the Mid East Education Team.
Visit her on the Web at