Steven Sotloff was a student that a teacher could not forget. A former rugby and football player, he was physically imposing while at the same time soft spoken and polite, standing out among his classmates for his idealism regarding the prospects for Middle Eastern peace and his steadfast determination to pursue a career as a journalist in the region.
According to former Yale Professor William Deresiewicz, many of today’s elite American university students appear to lack intellectual curiosity and a sense of purpose, heading to lucrative private sector careers with “no idea why they’re doing it.” Steve Sotloff couldn’t have been more different. He was bitten by the journalism bug early on, having served as the editor-in-chief of The Kimball Union, the high school paper which he revived after a decade of dormancy. He went on to study journalism and political science at the University of Central Florida (UCF).
Over the years, Steve became deeply fascinated with the Middle East. In his words, “This process began before September 11th, but that day certainly fueled my desire.” Interested in exploring his Jewish roots, he embarked on a Birthright tour to Israel as a college sophomore. He then served as the only college reporter in the West Bank covering the Palestinian presidential elections in January 2005. Following these formative experiences, he decided to drop out of UCF and relocate to the region, working for ABC news affiliates in Israel and Jordan as a media assistant.
Sotloff then decided to complete his degree in government as a transfer student at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya, a private college in Israel offering degree programs taught in English. As a first year student, Steven shared that he had read extensively about globalization and current affairs over the years and that his top priority was to gain a solid knowledge base that would help him as a journalist. He also asserted that “globalization excites me but also terrifies me,” a statement that, in retrospect, sadly foreshadows the danger that went along with his chosen vocation.
Steve worked hard to combine work as a reporter and a producer with his studies. As a student in a course on the political economy of the Middle East, he informed me that he would most likely miss most of the lectures until the Israeli elections because of his work with a news crew. Ever serious and respectful, he asked what he could do to succeed in the course nonetheless. Steve did do well in the course, because, alongside his professional pursuits, he remained a serious and intellectually curious student who wrote excellent papers and for whom ideas were a higher priority than grades.
Not one to be stopped by the lack of a defined job, he set out with nothing more than the conviction that his stories, if good enough, would be picked up by major media outlets
Steve firmly believed that the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a prerequisite for regional peace. In 2007 he wrote, “Especially in this age of globalization, what happens in the heart of the Jewish and Muslim world is crucial to the stability of the Middle East.” He worried that time was running out, pointing out that extremism was rising in the region and that “Arab society is a pressure cooker waiting to boil over.” He viewed education as the key to ending the conflict and supported and worked in coexistence programs designed to bring Arabs and Jews closer together. In his view, “Not enough emphasis is ever placed on the fact that the Jewish and Muslim people have a shared background. There is more room to find common ground between both cultures.”
After graduation, Steve worked on his Arabic and decided to work as a freelance reporter in the region. Not one to be stopped by the lack of a defined job, he set out with nothing more than the conviction that his stories, if good enough, would be picked up by major media outlets. As the years passed, I followed Steve’s career from afar and wished him to stay safe while reporting his important stories. He never showed any fear, reporting from each and every one of the hot spots of the Arab Spring. Steve’s expertise was talking to people on the street, giving a voice to those who would never otherwise be heard in the west. And he did that very well.
Like many others, I was shocked to see Steve Sotloff reappear in the James Foley beheading video after a long period of silence. I was devastated by his death just a few weeks later. But Steve Sotloff deserves to be remembered for much more than his horrific execution at the hands of his ISIS kidnappers. He was a serious, professional journalist and a thoughtful, idealistic young man who risked his life to tell the stories of the Arab Spring. May his memory be an inspiration to us all.