Why Don't Israelis Know That Aaron Soffer Is Missing?

With the case now under U.S. scrutiny, it seems that everything that can be done is being done; but it remains a mystery why it is still absent from the Israeli mainstream.

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A photograph of Aaron Sofer, 23, is nearby as people listen during a news conference Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014, in Lakewood, N.J.
A photograph of Aaron Sofer, 23, is nearby as people listen during a news conference Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014, in Lakewood, N.J. Credit: AP

It is extremely rare - almost unheard of - for a news story in Israel to grab major newspaper headlines and TV broadcast time in the United States - and yet be totally non-existent when it comes to the Israeli media.

But that is precisely the case when it comes to a missing young man named Aaron Soffer, a red-headed 23-year-old yeshiva student from Lakewood, New Jersey, who disappeared without a trace in a Jerusalem forest last Friday. Not only is Soffer himself nowhere to be found - but news of his disappearance is completely missing from the mainstream Israeli landscape.

Why? Is it because he isn’t Israeli? Because he is ultra-Orthodox? Because the local media is solely focused on the war in Gaza and other unrest in the region?

Nobody seems to have a clear answer. But whatever the reason, by Wednesday, the story had been plastered all over the New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania region in every possible publication and even garnered some attention in the national media - with pieces on Fox News, USA Today, and an AP story that ran in The Huffington Post.

But in Israel, the only outlets that have been covering Soffer’s disappearance and the search for him are religious publications and English-language media. As a result, the major international news outlets based in Israel haven’t focused on the story either.

If one gives the Israeli media the benefit of the doubt, the fact that the story is being ignored is due to the dramatic crescendo and (hopefully) the end of the Gaza conflict after 50 long days of fighting, death and destruction and new worries along Israel’s border.

But it is precisely the fact that Soffer is missing during such a volatile time that should create far more concern regarding his fate. Certainly, there are no pleasant options among the possibilities for his disappearance, after being separated from his friend on their Friday hike. He could have fallen and been injured (in which case one would presume he would have been located by now,) harmed himself in some way (an unlikely spontaneous decision in the midst of a hike) or, in the most hopeful of options, decided to run away (again, highly unlikely in the midst of a hike, after leaving all of his belongings in the forest and at his yeshiva.)

The option of foul play, either criminal or nationally-motivated, seems increasingly possible. It could be a copycat of the kidnapping and murder of the three yeshiva students, Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Fraenkel, or a revenge act for the grisly abduction and murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir. The suspects in the latter crime, let’s not forget, were ultra-Orthodox – like Soffer.

As the days, pass, there are more attempts to draw attention to the case. A video of his parents pleading for help and offering a 100,000 shekel reward has been circulated on social media. “I ask you, please, please, please; I beg of you, please, if anyone sees our Aaron, please call the police immediately,” his mother sobbed in the video.

Shortly afterwards, a meeting was arranged between Soffer’s worried parents and Rachel Fraenkel, the mother of the late Naftali Fraenkel. And then, in the U.S., there was a news conference in New Jersey on Tuesday that grabbed the attention of the U.S. press. It featured the family’s congressman, U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, who pledged, "I want the community to know that I believe no stone is being unturned." Smith said that he had written to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, asking for aid in the search, and had received a reply from Kerry’s chief of staff assuring him that the matter was being taken seriously.

But all of that has taken place in English – in the U.S., Israel or both – and still hasn’t crossed over into the Israeli mainstream.

The key question is whether this is merely a media failing or a lack of attention that reflects – and could result in – a less than vigorous effort on the part of Israeli authorities to uncover what has happened to him. His family seems to be walking a fine line between trying not to alienate those who are helping them and pushing them to do more.

In their video, his parents thanked the U.S. consulate, the Israeli Police, Haredi rescue organizations and the FBI for their efforts. But his cousin, Shlomo Soffer, told Fox News that the family wanted the military to be involved, with all signs pointing to a terrorist motive.

"There's no reason to assume he has committed suicide or has done anything silly or immature," Shlomo Soffer said. "We feel they should be taking further measures in terms of investigating a possible abduction."

At the New Jersey press conference, Brooklyn city council member Dov Hikind crossed state lines to send a pointed message: “Not enough was done from the very beginning. Not enough attention was paid to the disappearance of Aaron. So I want to say to the Israeli government: treat Aaron as if he were an Israeli soldier missing. Because we know what the Israeli government does when an Israeli soldier goes missing - every resource in the world is put into it.”

The sparse coverage in Israel – and the fact that the Haredi world eschews social media – has meant that it has taken time to build momentum on Facebook and Twitter to support the search for Soffer. By Wednesday – Aaron’s 23rd birthday – an active Facebook group was providing news on the case and information for those who want to take part in the search effort.

“The media can really affect people’s response,” said public relations consultant and social media activist Laura Ben-David. Referring to the first two days following his disappearance, she said: “By not putting it out there, people either didn't know, or didn’t understand, how urgent this was. I've heard from a number of people that they automatically discounted it when they only saw it in the Haredi press. And I am not anti-Haredi at all... I simply don't hold much stock in news that the mainstream media doesn't report on.”

By now, people like Ben-David are hashtagging away and the search for Soffer appears to be in full force, though under the media radar. From the beginning, the ultra-Orthodox rescue organizations were involved, as well as the police and teams of volunteers who have been combing both the immediate area of Soffer's disappearance and the Jerusalem neighborhoods of Bayit Vegan, Hadassah and Ein Kerem, which overlook the forest.

It seems that that everything that can be done is being done, now that the case is under U.S. scrutiny. But the mystery of why the name and image of Aaron Soffer still mean nothing to the Israeli mainstream – and its media - remains.

Aaron Soffer, 23-year-old yeshiva student missing in Jerusalem.Credit: Screenshot from Yeshiva World

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