By Eyal Press
Recent history is full of moments when an individual’s moral convictions have been at odds with the expectations of that individual’s community.
It is less full, however, of examples where ordinary people exercise incredible acts of moral courage in the face of overwhelming odds, particularly in situations where the vast majority of others remain silent.
Beautiful Souls: The Courage and Conscience of Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times by Eyal Press is a profile of four people separated by time and place, but united in their resolve to resist evil, challenge injustice and stand apart from the crowd.
It’s a book about individual courage in times of unimaginable violence, like the story of Paul Grüninger, the Swiss state police commander who defies orders by providing “special permission” for hundreds of Jewish refugees fleeing Austria to remain in Switzerland in 1938, or Aleksandar Jevtic, the Serb who made the instinctual, split-second decision to save scores of Croatian detainees from brutal mistreatment in 1991.
“For both Grüninger and Jevtic,” Press writes, “what changed was the state of the world around them, not their ideas about it.”
But Beautiful Souls is also a book about cultural and political defiance in situations “where circumstances don’t change much, but an individual’s ideas and assumptions do.”
Avner Wishnitzer, the once loyal Israel Defense Forces soldier-turned-peace-activist makes the agonizing decision to (very publicly) refuse to serve in the occupation of Palestinian territories in 2003, seeing it as a systemic violation of the group’s basic humanity.
“Saying no to the [Israeli] army-exercising moral courage-was ‘ten times harder’ ” than the physical courage required to serve in a special forces unit, Wishnitzer tells Press, “because virtually no one approved.” Resistance to the status quo required breaking his loyalty to an institution lying at the very core of his identity and history.
Press’s final account is the story of Leyla Wydler, a Houston-based financial adviser whose anonymous letter to the Securities and Exchange Commission in 2003 becomes the first in a long series of steps involved in revealing a multi-billion dollar Ponzi scheme and bringing down a financial empire.
It’s an example of “another kind of resistance that is arguably no easier and no less important” than those forms exercised by Press’s first three subjects, and Wydler’s story is illustrative of the personal costs involved in raising your voice at a time when it’s just so much easier to keep your mouth shut.
Well aware of the consequences of their defiance within their communities, whether those be military, cultural or financial, these individuals did so with a level of humility few of us can understand-and would do so again without hesitation.
Press combines narrative journalism with a wide range of psychological and philosophical literature to explore “the mystery of what impels people to do something risky and transgressive when thrust in a morally compromising situation: stop, say no, resist.” Beautiful Souls is required reading for anyone curious to better understand the limits and potential of their own convictions.
Michael Lapointe is a freelance writer based in Toronto.