Self-interest is but the survival of the animal in us. Humanity only begins for man with self-surrender. Henri Frederic Amiel, philosopher (1821-1881) If I am not for myself, who will be for me? (The sage Hillel, quoted in Ethics of the Fathers) We humans get satisfaction out of entertaining lofty ideals, even when we subscribe to them largely in theory. We feel we have it in our reach to be noble or compassionate or selfless - never mind that we may not be exactly those things today. We could be, and that's the point. And it's a comfort. It might be a greater comfort to discover that an attribute like selflessness isn't necessarily all it's cracked up to be, and that self-interest can, in fact, sometimes be beneficial far beyond the self. Forget the likes of Bernie Madoff. We're not talking about the individual who pursues wealth, sex, gourmet food or other pleasures without regard for anyone else. This is about setting protective boundaries and exercising good judgment. WE'VE all likely read at least one magazine advice column where "Frustrated & Angry" describes herself (it's usually a woman) as having acquired the reputation among her circle of being someone who is "always willing to do a favor," a person who "never says no" - and she's feeling mightily put upon and thoroughly fed up. Those with a lively visual imagination might picture this person as an amorphous entity surrounded by a clamoring mob edging ever closer, until she is simply overrun. The magazine's advice to such a reader, in one formulation or another, is: Start establishing some long-overdue boundaries and asserting your prerogative to order your life as you see fit - including your right to refuse a request without shame, guilt or fear of losing approbation. Welcome to healthy self-interest. THIS newspaper recently ran an op-ed by a haredi man from Beit Shemesh giving (I thought) rather brave public voice to the angst his love for the State of Israel and yearning to fly the flag caused him at this time of year. "On Yom Ha'atzma'ut," he wrote, "I feel the pride and patriotism bursting out, just as I feel the sorrow on Remembrance Day, and... the weight of history on Holocaust Remembrance Day. "Yet because I am part of the general haredi world, that sense of pride has to be suppressed... If not, there would be repercussions," including his kids possibly being thrown out of school and his family chased out of the neighborhood. The readers who wrote to us following this cri de coeur - one "kol hakavod" excepted - neither viewed its author as courageous nor appreciated that amid the pain of denying himself joyful public expression of his feelings about the state, he was simply, given his milieu, exercising healthy self-interest. I too look askance at Jewish groups that live here and enjoy our country's benefits while ignoring "the wonderful miracle of reborn Jewish sovereignty," and feel this man should be asking himself whether the community he has elected to live in is the right one for him. But as long as he remains a part of it, he is right in his judgment that waving the blue-and-white could be akin to waving a red flag at a bull. Two of our journalists here at the Post came into the office a while ago complaining that the Israeli flags had been snapped off their cars while they stood in our parking lot, which we share with a large new middle-class haredi apartment complex. Yet Romema, with its considerable haredi population, is still a far cry from some of Beit Shemesh's hard-core haredi enclaves. Which of our letter-writers would be willing to take responsibility for the physical safety of this man and his family if he took their advice and flew the flag? Men and communities in this world are often in the position of Arctic explorers who are making great speed in a given direction while the ice floe beneath them is making greater speed in the opposite direction. John Burroughs, naturalist and essayist (1837-1921) WHILE it may be true that nations have no friends, only interests, they can be stunningly blind in determining their own healthy self-interest. Regrettably, this remains true when nations band together and glorify themselves with the title of "international community." This came over well in an April 24 Post column by David Horovitz called "Accommodating Ahmadinejad." "Iran wants to see Israel destroyed," the introduction said, "but it also wants to take the free world back to the dark ages. So even if they don't care about Israel, why do the world's democracies continually furnish Ahmadinejad with the platform to undermine them?" Why indeed? No one recalls the Dark Ages as a particularly benevolent epoch for mankind. Could the abject indulgence of this Islamist nasty be a hugely misguided drive to "make nice" to the crocodile in the hope that it will, as the saying goes, eat them last - or maybe not at all if they've fed it Israel first? Employing some well-deserved sarcasm, Horovitz slammed UN Secretary-General Ban ki-moon's "faux naivety" in allowing the Iranian leader to address the Durban II conference in Geneva last month and then professing shock and horror when he "simply ignored Ban's stresses and reminders" to behave himself and launched into another of his toxic assaults on the despicable post-WWII world order and the racist, genocidal Zionist regime. Given that Ban aspires to polish up the UN's tarnished image, healthy self-interest should have driven him to declare that he would, as Horovitz wrote, do everything in his power to prevent his organization being party to any future abuse of this kind; and that he would "launch procedures to prosecute the Iranian president for inciting and conspiring to commit genocide" against a UN member. Ban didn't; and Ahmadinejad "won over further converts" to his virulent cause. AS Iran races to complete its bomb, the nuclear clock rapidly ticking, Germany, Russia and China are pursuing policies they perceive to be in their own genuine self-interest, but aren't. Germany, while paying lip service to its "special relationship" with the Jewish state, is happily subsidizing companies that do business with Iran. Russia is reportedly still considering selling the Iranians the advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missile system to protect their nuclear facilities; and there is talk of China building a series of nuclear power plants throughout Iran. But Germany has a large Muslim population and belongs to the "despicable and corrupted" West. As Europe transmutes into Eurabia, Germany will not escape the Islamist embrace it is even now helping to consolidate. China's strengthening of a rival imperial power portends a clash of imperialisms down the line. And China has its own problematic Muslim fundamentalists. Ought it to be interested in fostering more of the same elsewhere? Russia too has a Muslim fundamentalist population and doesn't want to see such extremists encouraged and strengthened. It is, moreover, interested in regional stability. It wants to be seen as a respectable, legitimate power and not as the bad boy of the international community, a replica of the old Soviet Union which arms rogue regimes. Yet that's precisely what it's doing. Why are these countries working against their own healthy self-interest? Probably because the hypnotic glare of short-term benefits (money and perceived influence) obscures not only the inherent dangers, but the vastly healthier longer-term alternative as well. WHEN I was a child, I once asked my father why, in the wording of the well-known prayer, we ask God "to fulfill the desires of our hearts for good." Surely, I pointed out, we wouldn't desire anything that's bad for us. "Ah," he replied. "It's because we don't know if what we want today will ultimately end up being to our benefit. It could turn out just the opposite." I guess it's no shame to admit that we can occasionally use a little help in identifying our healthy self-interest.