What Israelis Can Learn From Steven Sotloff’s Life

We can't force our neighborhood to accept us, but the murdered journalist's short life teaches us that to want to be part of it is a natural and healthy wish.

Steven Sotloff reporting from Egypt.
Khaled Bey, Twitter

I don’t remember ever meeting Steven Sotloff, though I often read his byline and occasionally we both reported from the same locations. But I think I understand why the period he lived in Israel was relatively brief and he instead sought to work in other countries throughout the region.

Some Israelis were surprised on Wednesday, the day after news broke of his murder by Islamic State in Syria and it emerged that he was also an Israeli citizen, having moved here in 2005 to study for a degree at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. What was a nice Jewish-American boy who had recently made aliyah doing traipsing around Libya and Yemen, they wondered.

Some of the coverage of his murder in the Hebrew media seemed to reflect this sentiment. Yedioth Ahronoth plastered on its front-page a photograph of Sotloff in a Petah Tikva swimming pool under the headline “One of us.” The irony of his choice to live a life in countries where his fleeting Israeli identity was a life-threatening liability was lost on the editors.

For most Israelis, their country is an island. Surrounded by hostile territory, the only viable exit is via Ben-Gurion International Airport, which is why Hamas’ threat to close it down with rocket fire was potent and the periodic strikes by airport workers are always so short. Israel can’t face having its only lifeline to the outside world closed for more than a few hours.

Before the security situation in Egypt deteriorated, many Israelis used to head for the beaches of Sinai. But despite having to stamp a passport to cross over at Taba, it never really felt like being abroad; more like a short break in the backyard playground. The same is true about Israelis using Amman airport for cheap flights to the Far East – it’s just a point of transit, they’re not actually travelling in Jordan.

Without going into the constant blame game of who shoulders the greater portion of responsibility for Israel’s state of war with much of the surrounding region, and the lack of warmth even with the two neighbors it does have diplomatic relations with, the Israeli psyche has inexorably evolved into a mindset incapable of seeing the surrounding countries as travel destinations. The short, heady period of the Oslo process didn’t change this and if anything, the failure of Oslo and talks with the Syrians transformed the aspiration “to eat hummus in Damascus” into the epitome of woolly-headed leftism.

Ehud Barak in his short term as prime minister sat across the table from Arafat and the Syrian foreign minister, but still reached the conclusion that Israel is “a villa in a jungle.”

Israelis love to travel and you will find them practically everywhere on the globe; it’s not surprising that many foreigners believe there are a hundred million of us living here, instead of just eight million. We are everywhere – except in the part of the world that we regularly inhabit. The Hebrew concept of going abroad, to hutz la’aretz – literally out of the land – includes just about everywhere, but not our surroundings.

I’m not writing this to blame Israelis in any way – travelling in Jordan or Egypt openly as an Israeli is dangerous and visiting most other Mideastern countries is both illegal and downright suicidal. But most of us are so used to this that we accept it as the norm and fail to realize how abnormal the villa really is.

It hit me 10 years ago on one of my first reporting trips to a neighboring country: When stopping at a gas station on the road from Jordan’s capital to the airport, I noticed we were surrounded by vehicles with license plates from at least half a dozen different countries – Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. For the first time as an Israeli I felt the sensation of freedom of movement across a wide expanse, far beyond the horizon, such as I felt as a child on road-trips in Europe, stopping somewhere on a main highway – stops frequented by drivers and passengers from across the continent. It was both exhilarating and poignant at once.

For many Americans and Europeans who make their homes in Israel, this country with all its experiences is more than enough. But there are those who quickly feel constrained by its physical and mental limits. It’s not just the politics and often dysfunctional society – simply the fact that you can’t get in your car and drive very far before your identity becomes a barrier.

It is hardly surprising that among the cohorts of journalists, NGO workers and diplomats traversing the Middle East there is a disproportionate number of Jews, many with a vaguely secret Israeli chapter in their lives. At some stage, Israel is just too small and there is something so seductive and fascinating just across its borders. Steven Sotloff was a prime example of those who chose not to resist the pull.

That some Jews who move here decide to leave after a few years is not necessarily a failure of Zionism. Proponents of the line that Israel should be the right place for all Jews have lost grip with reality. Those who choose the jungle over the villa are not necessarily disillusioned – but it is extremely difficult, bordering on the impossible, to be both an “open” Israeli and a frequent traveller through the Arab world. It can be a heartbreaking choice to make.

Most Israelis are not even aware that some have this choice, and have forgotten that once upon a time the dream of open borders and highways was a prime Zionist aspiration.

It won’t change any time soon. Even if Israel and the Palestinians somehow get their act together and relaunch the peace process, life in most of this region has got a lot more dangerous, for locals and Westerners alike. But there will always be those, like Steven Sotloff, yearning to cross those borders.

Reports in the Israeli media preferred to dwell on how in captivity he apparently fasted on Yom Kippur and prayed toward Jerusalem. But the wanderlust and sense of wonder with the surroundings are no less Jewish traits.

There are many reasons to work much harder to open up Israel to the Arab world. Ending the corrosive effect on our society from the continuing injustice of occupation of another nation is the prime one, but finding the elusive path to peace with the Palestinians will never be enough. We cannot force our neighborhood to accept us, but if there is anything to be learned from Steve Sotloff’s short life, it is that to want to be part of it is a natural and healthy wish.