Paul Grüninger was a state police officer in St. Gallen, in northeast Switzerland, who voted conservative and sang in the church choir. He was not a worldly man, nor given to fits of moral introspection. But before World War II he saved hundreds of Jewish refugees he met at the border. He stamped their arrival papers with dates just before Aug. 19, 1938, when tighter immigration restrictions had gone into effect. In 1939 he was caught and fired.
Unemployed and broke, Grüninger — one of the four brave men and women whom Eyal Press profiles in “Beautiful Souls,” his inquiry into what sort of person does the right thing when everyone else is doing evil…
…Mr. Press’s case studies — there’s also a Serbian soldier who rescued Croatians about to be sent to detention, an elite Israeli officer who refused to serve in the West Bank, and a financial adviser who blew the whistle on her corrupt Texas firm — capture how the price of moral courage is often not dramatic condemnation, not the martyr’s posthumous exaltation, but a lifelong sentence to sit apart, with no chance for appeal. For example the Israeli soldier, Avner Wishnitzer, helped to spark a national debate about when it is appropriate to defy military orders, but for Mr. Press the more interesting fact is that the soldier’s own mother, even as she defended his choices, was a little embarrassed by him.
How is refusing to defend a tiny democratic state stuck in a sea of evil (Israel in the Middle East) moral courage? It is obscene to group this Avner Wishnitzer with those who saved lives.
When the situation shifts to Israel, where Mr. Press’s family is originally from (he emigrated to the U.S. as a young child), the ground gets murkier. Here the exemplary man is Avner Wishnitzer, a former soldier in the most elite unit of the Israeli Defense Force who refuses to participate in West Bank actions against Palestinian civilians. The Hebrew expression yafeh nefesh, “beautiful soul,” (it is where the title of the book comes from) has a connotation of naïveté, like the English “bleeding heart.” Mr. Press finds justification for Mr. Wishnitzer’s decision in an Israeli court’s ruling that soldiers are required to disobey orders that are illegal—meaning, it seems, contrary to Jewish law.
The problem, of course, is in determining whose interpretation of the law is legitimate. Mr. Press is impatient with a settler who tells him that removing Jews from the settlements is “ethnic cleansing,” but he recognizes that the judgment is necessarily subjective. Yet he does not examine the ugly implications of his inclusion of Israel as an evil power to be resisted on a par with Nazi Germany. A similar question of equivalency occurs where Mr. Press justifiably praises the bravery of a Guantánamo Bay whistleblower but fails to acknowledge the potential complexities of the situation.