American journalist Steven Sotloff moved to Israel several years ago and became an Israeli citizen before ultimately ending up in the clutches of the Islamic State and having footage of his beheading released to the world, Israeli media reported Wednesday.
Fearing an end like that of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, family and friends of Sotloff tried desperately to keep his Jewish identity secret after he was kidnapped by jihadists. According to an eyewitness account of one of his fellow captives, Sotloff tried to worship secretly even under the watchful eye of his abductors.
A former captive who was held alongside Sotloff told the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Aharonoth that Sotloff feigned being ill last year during Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, so he could fast without raising suspicions, even though his kidnappers had prepared eggs for him to eat that day.
The former captive, who was not named, said Sotloff also secretly prayed toward Jerusalem as in keeping with Jewish custom, using his Islamic kidnappers as a compass.
“It looked like he was praying in a hidden way towards Jerusalem. He noted what way the Muslims were praying in and changed his direction slightly,” the former captive told Yedioth. Muslims pray facing the direction of Mecca in Saudi Arabia.
The U.S. National Security Council on Wednesday morning announced that it had confirmed the authenticity of the video disseminated by the Islamic State. President Barack Obama called Sotloff’s execution a “horrific act of violence.”
Oren Kessler, a former Jerusalem Post correspondent who is now a Middle East research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society think tank in London, wrote in Politico that he and Sotloff never met in person, but used to exchange emails while Sotloff was traveling in the Middle East reporting for Time and Foreign Policy magazines and the Christian Science Monitor.
Kessler suggested that Sotloff may have undergone a “fake conversion” to Islam to appease those he met on his travels in the Middle East:
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.
“I don’t really share my values and opinions,” he replied. “I try to stay alive.” 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.”
But Steven, ever the optimist, seemed to think a fake conversion to Islam might grant him immunity. “In Yemen it’s the first question everyone asks,” he wrote—namely, a person’s religion. “I ‘converted’ in my first week so I wouldn’t have to deal with all that rubbish. LOL.”
Danielle Berrin, who writes for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, knew Sotloff since first grade and had corresponded with him in recent years.
Though Israeli media reported that he had last been living in Israel, Sotloff emailed Berrin in November 2010 that he had been planning to move back to the U.S.
Berrin spoke to friends of Sotloff’s who said he had hesitated before traveling to Syria, while his parents opposed his trip.
“He really felt that this was who he was; he said he had to do this,” a friend of Sotloff’s told Berrin. “He felt compelled to put a human face on war stories.”
Berrin wrote that in an effort to keep his religion secret from the jihadists, Sotloff’s friends and family tried to scrub references to his faith from the Internet, including deleting his Facebook page.
“[W]hen ISIS finally outed his capture, the New York Times deleted the reference to Sotloff’s Jewishness that was posted in its initial online report,” Berrin wrote. “Stupidly, the Times had announced he was ‘the grandson of Holocaust survivors’ in the lead sentence…”
Berrin posted an excerpt of an article Sotloff wrote in 2011 on Austrian Jews for the Jerusalem Post, whose descriptions might today have been written about the ethnic cleansing of non-Muslims underway in Iraq and Syria.
“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.”
“[I]f his death awakens the world to the evil proliferating among those who killed him, then maybe, just maybe, there can be redemption,” Berrin wrote.