Eyal Press’s New Book Explores Moral Courage

What do an Israeli soldier, a Houston whistle-blower, and a Swiss border-patrol officer have in common?

A few years ago, the human-rights journalist Eyal Press flew to Croatia to meet Aleksander Jevtic, a man he much admired. Jevtic was a Serb who had saved dozens of Croats from a massacre by his fellow Serbs during the 1990s Yugoslavian wars. But he was nothing like what Press expected.

On his first interview, Jevtic showed up in a shiny BMW X5, music blaring, in a white Reebok T-shirt and shorts. When Jevtic took Press to his home, there were virtually no books, and all Jevtic seemed to do was watch sports on his flat-screen TV. He had no steady job and apparently made a living collecting rent from a few apartments he owned.

Despite this Jevtic would become a central figure in Press’s new book, Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times. It’s a smart and subtle work that assays the nature of resistance, of moral courage. It’s not the type we’re used to reading, however: of saintlike leaders in the civil-rights movement or the anti-apartheid ANC. It’s interested in ordinary folks, people like Jevtic, who seem painfully imperfect.

“Even if you go through the Holocaust rescuers, they weren’t saints, they were sinners, womanizers,” said Press, 41, over coffee in midtown Manhattan. “Meeting these characters affirmed that sense …There are Mandelas, there are Gandhis, and then there’s the rest of us.”

Press, a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books, The Nation, and the like, builds his book around four case studies, all people from different times and places. There is the Swiss border-patrol officer who, in 1938, defies state law to allow Jews into Switzerland. There is the decorated Israeli soldier who eventually refuses to serve in the occupied Palestinian territories.

And there is even an American in Houston, Leyla Wydler, who in 2003 risked her career to report on the dubious financial practices at her firm. Almost everyone ignored her at first, and she soon lost her job. But after the Madoff scheme was exposed, the case was reopened in 2009 and her hunch proved correct: her firm had swindled hundreds of clients in a $7 billion Ponzi scheme.

Press said he included the financial crisis not only for its timeliness, but because he wanted to show more quotidian ethical dilemmas that nonetheless require immense moral courage. The wide range of scenarios was instructive in another way, too: it allowed him to home in on key traits that all his subjects shared.

One of the common elements he found among all his characters was a fecund moral imagination, or the ability to put themselves in another person’s shoes. Of Wydler, he said, “She had to imagine what it was like for her clients, that horrible sense of betrayal they’d feel if all of their money was suddenly gone.”

If it seems trite, a grade-school lesson we all pay lip service to, then consider the untold numbers of people who may have suspected wrongdoing but, fearing their own jobs, did nothing.

Press supports his arguments with numerous psychology and sociology studies. But even reading the studies, he was surprised to learn that so many of them seemed to confirm what philosophers and political theorists have been saying for centuries.

Adam Smith gets several nods, for instance, for his now overlooked work The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). It argued that empathy should sometimes take priority over intellect. After all, it’s often been the case that rationalizations and theorizing—about race, say, or certain ethnic groups—have justified mass human violence. If we could simply imagine what it must feel like to be the hunted, perhaps there would be less hunting.

“We don’t want to go in the direction of getting rid of reason and intelligence altogether,” Press says. “But there’s a growing body of [scientific] literature that suggests that guys like Smith and Hume were onto something.”

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Press is also willing to pick fights with philosophers he otherwise admires. The book is inspired by Hannah Arendt’s report Eichmann in Jerusalem, which argued that Nazis were able to commit a horrific genocide because they were often removed and inured by the bureaucracy that put it in place. This was, as she famously put it, “the banality of evil.”

But as he studied his characters more closely, Arendt’s thesis seemed to come undone. His subjects were not numbed into conformity, and actively chose to defy their group. As he read more widely—particularly Christopher Browning’s important Holocaust history Ordinary Men, which showed that Nazi soldiers were sometimes given a choice to excuse themselves from murdering Jews—he thought that Arendt ignored human agency almost entirely.

“It puts too much emphasis on banality,” he said of Arendt’s work, “that we lose a sense of choice.”

Nothing made clear that sense of choice more than Avner Wishnitzer, the Israeli soldier who refuses to serve in the Palestinian territories. He is roughly the same age as Press, who was himself born in Israel. Though Press moved to the United States when he was 2, he often reports from the country, and many of his family members, including his father, were in the Israel Defense Forces.

Press was struck that Wishnitzer was not the anti-establishment ideologue he imagined him to be. Instead he was proud to have served in one of Israel’s most elite units, and even more proud of his country. After he started a petition for other soldiers who wanted no part in the occupation, in 2003, his greatest concern was that he would be considered an unpatriotic idealist. In Hebrew, the term for that type is a yafeh nafesh—literally, a “beautiful soul.”

Press liked the irony of titling his book after that phrase—something we might instinctively think a term of praise, but, in another context, becomes a kind of insult. As Press explained: “Don’t think it’s so easy to love these people; it’s not. They’ve had to deal with a lot of derision and shame. And if we don’t face that and grapple with that, then we’re the ones who end up being naïve.”