Steven Sotloff, U.S. Prisoner Slain by ISIS, Was Also a Citizen of Israel

Steven Sotloff

The beheading of Steven J. Sotloff, the American journalist from Miami who had been held hostage by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, suddenly loomed larger for many Israelis on Wednesday when it emerged that he held Israeli citizenship and had lived and studied in the country for a few years.

Mr. Sotloff’s family broke a yearlong media blackout about his case two weeks ago after he appeared in an Internet video in which a black-clad, knife-wielding militant of the extremist group marked him as the next hostage to die after the American journalist James Foley. Yet the Israeli connection was kept well hidden. As long as there was a chance Mr. Sotloff was still alive there was fear that exposure of his Jewish roots and Israeli past could put him in further danger.By midday Wednesday, a day after the video of Mr. Sotloff’s beheading became public, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, Paul Hirschson, wrote on his Twitter account, “Cleared for publication: Steven Sotloff was #Israel citizen RIP,” and Mr. Sotloff’s death was immediately embraced here as a more intimate tragedy.

Ynet, a leading Hebrew news site, highlighted articles about Mr. Sotloff, 31, with a banner bearing the legend “The Israeli Victim” against the black flag of ISIS.

Moshe Yaalon, the Israeli defense minister, on Wednesday signed a declaration outlawing ISIS though there has not been any indication of activity by the group in Israel or the Palestinian territories.

Mr. Sotloff had lived in Israel from 2005 to 2008, according to Israelis who knew him. He studied for a year at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, a private college north of Tel Aviv, and played on the local Raanana Roosters rugby team. He had returned to Israel more recently for at least one visit.

It was not clear when he obtained citizenship, but that is relatively easy under Israel’s Law of Return, which encourages Jews from around the world to immigrate.

As a freelance reporter, Mr. Sotloff contributed to the Israel-based Jerusalem Report magazine along with Western publications like Time magazine, The Christian Science Monitor and World Affairs Journal.

Matthew Kalman, a former editor of The Jerusalem Report, wrote on the Haaretz website that those who worked with Mr. Sotloff knew that he was Jewish and had Israeli citizenship, “but we took a collective vow of silence, fearing that his kidnappers might seize on that fascinating personal history as an excuse to kill him.”

“In the end, our self-imposed censorship made no difference,” he said.

Mr. Sotloff was the grandson of Holocaust survivors, and his mother was a preschool teacher at Temple Beth Am in Pinecrest, Fla., a Reform synagogue where Mr. Sotloff attended day school.

The popular Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot quoted an unnamed hostage who had been held with Mr. Sotloff but was released as saying that Mr. Sotloff had hidden his Judaism from his captors but had managed to fast on Yom Kippur, telling them he was not feeling well and did not feel like eating.

Barak Barfi, a friend of Mr. Sotloff, issued a statement on Wednesday on behalf of the Sotloff family in front of their Miami home. Mr. Barfi said that Mr. Sotloff, who was abducted on Aug. 4, 2013, in Aleppo, Syria, “was no war junkie.”

“He did not want to be a modern-day Lawrence of Arabia,” Mr. Barfi said. “He merely wanted to give voice to those who had none.”

Last year, Mr. Sotloff wrote an article for The Jerusalem Report from Aleppo, describing the local people’s struggle for existence. Reproduced on The Jerusalem Post website on Wednesday, it ended: “As Syria descends deeper into chaos, violence is becoming a basic staple more abundant than bread. And as it does, the human cost of a war that will not end soon is becoming increasingly unbearable.”

A video showing U.S. journalist Steven Sotloff kneeling next to a masked ISIS fighter holding a knife in an unknown location in this still image from video released by ISIS September 2, 2014.

A video showing U.S. journalist Steven Sotloff kneeling next to a masked ISIS fighter holding a knife in an unknown location in this still image from video released by ISIS September 2, 2014.


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