Do not stand idly by while your neighbor’s blood is shed, the Bible tells us: Lo ta’amod al dam re’akha. The great revelation of the 20th century might have been humankind’s remarkable capacity to disregard this basic moral tenet. Yet “even in situations of seemingly total conformity, there are always some people who refuse to go along,” Eyal Press writes in “Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times.” What drives the unwilling executioners—those rare creatures brave enough to stand up for what is right in the face of real threat—is the question Mr. Press asks in this valentine to the human spirit.

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.

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