When the Islamist militia ISIS posted a video last month threatening to kill captive American journalist Steven Sotloff, the situation was dire enough. But there was one secret that could potentially have made things even worse: Sotloff was Jewish and a duel citizen of Israel and the US.
To hide that fact from his ISIS captors, who call themselves the Islamic State, a group of Sotloff’s friends and volunteers worked around the clock to keep the captors from discovering his secret.
Sotloff captivity itself was also largely a secret. ISIS held Sotloff for a year, but even many of his friends didn’t know he’d been abducted. But then, the extremist group posted a video of journalist James Foley’s beheading, during which Sotloff appeared. They threatened to kill him next.
His friend, Gregg Roman, called Sotloff’s father to offer any assistance. “He said, ‘Do what you can do to help our son,’” says Roman, who went to college in Israel with Sotloff. “I said, ‘I’m going to make sure that no harm comes to Steven because of his identity.’”
Roman, who directs the Jewish Community Relations Council in Pittsburgh, assembled a group of friends and various web experts for one mission: To clean the Internet of any mention that Sotloff was Jewish or Israeli.
One man recruited for the task was Michael Bassin, an American Jew based in Tel Aviv who travels throughout the Arab Middle East as a trade consultant.
“In the Arab world, they’ve been taught very little about what Jewish people are actually like,” Bassin says. “They are taught they are sinister, they have really poor intentions. Being a Jewish person and being a nice guy do not go hand in hand. So if they found out he was Jewish and Israeli, that means he was a spy and it would have expedited his murder. That was the belief.”