At the start of the last month of my high school senior year (June 1967), our social science teacher Mr. Ya’acov Aronson walked into the classroom and made a startling announcement: “As you know, war has broken out in Israel and I feel it my duty to go there to do whatever I can to help. I’m sorry that I won’t be here to help you with the last-minute preparations for your NY State Regents exam, but sometimes we have to do what we have to do.”
Incredibly, the school’s principal – this was Yeshiva University High School, Manhattan – told him he would be fired if he left before the school year was over! Mr. Aronson stuck to his guns (pun intended); my classmates had our parents call the principal in protest, and the principal ultimately backed down from his threat.
When we think of the word “courage”, it usually means a sort of physical heroism: in war or saving a baby running into the street from an oncoming car. But these instances are relatively rare (except for soldiers). The courage needed in everyday life is of a different sort altogether. It entails going against the social stream, standing up for what one believes despite that being a distinctly minority opinion.
In my specialty field of expertise – mass communications – there’s a well-documented theory called “The Spiral of Silence”. It works like this: in a group, several of the “leading” individuals will voice an opinion; a few others will feel that they are in a minority, and therefore not voice a contrasting opinion. Most people in that group might have no opinion at first but seeing/hearing only one opinion being voiced they will gradually begin to believe in – and express – that same opinion, until the whole group becomes homogeneous on that topic. The “silence” of the minority eventually leads to what’s called “group-think”. This is no small matter; the first rendition of this theory was based on the majority’s silence in pre-Nazi, Weimar Germany. As Sartre put it: “Every word has consequences. Every silence, too.”
Doing the opposite (speaking out) has the beneficial effect not only of clearing one’s conscience but can also make such a person more popular – not with the “in-group” but rather with others who appreciate a “straight-shooter”. Indeed, in my other academic specialty area, political science, I have noticed that many popular elected leaders have policies that do not necessarily reflect their supporters’ interests, but these voters appreciate that leaders’ vocal honesty (or at least what passes for “honest talk”, e.g. Donald Trump in his 2016 campaign). In Israel we’ve had straight shooters like PM Yitzchak Rabin and Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek, who never minced words; Kollek was reelected five (!) times and served for 28 years in one of the world’s toughest cities. The U.S. had Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan (not to mention “Honest Abe” way back then) – the former two not the brightest of leaders but respected for telling it like it is.
Saying something (seemingly) unpopular takes gumption; acting on one’s beliefs is an even higher level of courage. To paraphrase: it’s important to put your legs where your mouth is – otherwise known as “talk the talk AND walk the walk.” Mr. Aronson was willing to do just that – at potentially great sacrifice (life, limb, and employment). That was a rare example of extreme civilian courage – a model of doing what one feels is the right thing to do and damn the consequences. (Interesting coda: more than a decade later I bumped into him when I started to teach at Bar-Ilan University in Israel; he had become the Head Librarian at my university!)
I will now offer a speculation (take it or leave it): Jews are culturally predisposed to such types of “courage”. First, the Jewish tradition is heavily steeped in argumentation, e.g. the Talmud is one gigantic compendium of disagreements between the rabbis – no spiral of silence there. However, even more germane is the fact that from the start, Judaism has been “oppositionist”. The biblical Prophets were paragons of this, railing against the Israelite kings to their royal face. Simultaneously, Judaism fought tooth and nail against the ancient world’s polytheism; later, Jews stood steadfast as a denial of Christianity and Islam, despite their extremely minority position vis-à-vis both those major religions.
Indeed, one could take such speculation one step farther (this will be controversial): the State of Israel today is the epitome of “moral courage” – emphasizing national ethnicity over contemporary, western, “civic” statism; refusing to be labeled “colonial”, as Jews return to their historical homeland.
Be that as it may, moral courage is a universal phenomenon, albeit sadly all too rare. Social pressure (many times self-inflicted – we only imagine that others demand that we “toe their line”) is not easy to overcome. When is it easier? When we have an internal compass, some deeply held belief or opinion (hopefully based on fact). Armed with that, we can more easily defend ourselves psychologically when the counterattack is launched.
Courage, then, is somewhat paradoxical: in order to be more popular with ourself, we might have to suffer some modicum of unpopularity from others. Is it worth that? I believe so: every time we look in the mirror, we see ourself and not others. It’s far more important to live with (and up to the standards of) that face than to face the opprobrium of those who think that you don’t know what’s right and they do.