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The Courage of Conscience

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Posted on Jul 31, 2012

By Nomi Prins

(Page 2)

Speaking to Jevtic recently, Press discovers that it was more than instinct or an indifference to the consequences that led him to save these men. Though Croats had killed his grandparents during World War II, his mother taught him that “most Croats were good people and that it was wrong to hate.” Also, Jevtic’s wife was a Croat. Her and her family’s acceptance of him resonated with his resistance to group identification. This reliance on feeling rather than inductive reasoning, as explained by British economist Adam Smith, propelled Jevtic to act as he did.

In The Rules of Conscience, we meet Avner Wishnitzer, who at 18 served in the Sayeret Matkal, the most elite unit of the Israeli army, and became an objector to the mistreatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories.

Growing up, Wishnitzer believed in peace and also took pride in serving with distinction in the Israel Defense Forces. During his tour of duty, his sister took him to see what the Palestinians endured during the second intifada. It was a turning point for him. He was shocked that his army could so mistreat the Palestinians. At the time, resisting orders as a soldier was equated with being a traitor. Wishnitzer went a step further: He became an ardent peace activist.

book cover


Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times

By Eyal Press


Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 208 pages


Buy the book

He then “found it increasingly difficult not to feel enraged by his fellow citizens. … [He had gone] from being vilified as a traitor to feeling something arguably more exasperating than this: ignored.”

Press sensed, however, that for Wishnitzer, the struggle to open his country’s eyes was also “rejuvenating, enabling him to feel things he might otherwise have paid an equally dear price for trying to repress.”

Wishnitzer said, “It is my obligation. And in a sense that’s not very different from what I felt when I was 18 … only now … I served my society in another way, a way I believe will take us in a better fashion.”

In his epilogue, Press presents a military prosecutor at Guantanamo Bay named Darrel Vandeveld, a self-professed patriot. It is his fervent belief in the integrity of the Constitution that compels him to provide testimony for the defense in a case revolving around Mohammed Jawad, who at 16 years old was prosecuted and tortured for a crime Vandeveld did not believe he committed. Taking on the entire U.S. military establishment, Vandeveld endured painful isolation and humiliation. But as Vandeveld says, “I went to Guantanamo on a mission … and the mission that I achieved was perhaps my own salvation.”

We live in a world where bank CEOs linger at helms of fraud-producing firms, Pfc. Bradley Manning is jailed for allegedly exposing the rot at the core of civilian-killing American military procedures, and laws protecting whistle-blowers are routinely weakened by those who do wrong with impunity. In “Beautiful Souls,” Press has penned an inspiring antidote to the malaise of helplessness in the face of crushing circumstances. It will move you, and that may move the world.

After I read the book, I caught up with Press to ask him some questions.

Nomi Prins: You covered a vast amount of geographical ground, as well as conducting in-depth interviews, a wonderful journalistic feat in today’s world where instantaneous results are coveted. How long were you working on this book?

Eyal Press: The book took four to five years, but the process was not linear—that is, I began writing before I’d actually finished reporting—so it’s hard to say exactly how the time was split. I spent a lot of time thinking about how to organize the book. In the end, I decided it should go from the most familiar, frequently narrated context for stories about moral courage and resistance—a “rescuer” who helps Jews fleeing Nazism—to a setting that is slightly less familiar (the Balkans) to the occupied territories in Israel/Palestine to the financial world here in the United States, an environment so rife with conformity that many hardly see a need for defiance. I arranged it this way to show that resistance isn’t necessary only in extreme situations—a dictatorship, a genocide …—and that, in some ways, it can be as challenging in contexts where everything appears to be fine but isn’t.

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