Rachel Sharansky Danziger

How to keep Hamas from weaponizing our joy – a lesson from my father

Natan Sharansky was undefeated by the KGB’s cruel psychological torture, now we too must gird our minds against assault
People wave to the convoy carrying newly released hostages from the Gaza Strip, in Ofakim, Israel on November 26, 2023. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

When I turned my phone on after Shabbat, I started crying. And for the first time since October 7th, my tears were ones of joy. There they were on my screen, these strangers-yet-not-strangers, these people whose faces have become so dear and familiar to me over the past seven weeks. I thought of their faces when I prayed for them each morning. I saw them staring at me from walls and signposts as I went about my day. I carried them with me into my dreams at night, and thought of them with pain, with anguish.

And now there they were, on my screen, smiling at their loved ones. Hugging them on our side of the border. Free, free, free.

For the first time since October 7th, the ever-present weight of pain was swept aside by sheer relief.

And it was this very feeling, this wondrous and luxurious feeling, that lit a flashing “warning” sign inside my brain.

* * *

When Hamas sends a rocket our way, the sirens come to life to warn us. You are under attack, they tell us. Seek shelter.

When Hamas launches a psychological attack against us, there is no siren to alert us.

And yet I felt its shriek inside me all the same.

I saw, all at once, what my joy could to to me. We are all so worn by grief, so hungry for joy, for happy endings. It would be so very easy to grow addicted to this daily dose of oh-so-needed happiness and oxytocin. But what would happen when Hamas inevitably dangles the promise of another dose under our collective nose? What happens when they change the terms of the deal on us, violate their promises, play us, forever holding that awfully effective lure — our people’s lives — just out of reach?

Would we have the strength to abstain when necessary, to say “it’s time for war again”? Or would we hem and haw and let our enemies lead us by said collective nose?

I thank God most fervently that I didn’t have to make the call about this deal. I know I won’t have to make the call to resume fighting when its terms expire, either. But our positions and emotions matter to our leaders. They won’t have strength if we — their nation — are hesitant and brittle. They would find it very difficult to make hard, necessary calls if we aren’t there, ready and determined to fill their sails with wind.

And if we fail them or they fail us, if we allow Hamas to survive this war as an effective power, we will have lost the war.

My tears of joy didn’t have the time to dry on my face before I realized: if I allow myself to feel my joy too deeply, I won’t have the strength to stand tall and proud and resolute when it is time to fight again. I wouldn’t even have the strength to stand like this tomorrow, when Hamas again uses delays and mind games to toss us all from hope into despair and back and wear us down.

* * *

This realization took me back to 1977, when a group of KGB agents grabbed my father, Natan Sharansky, in a Moscow street, pushed him into a waiting car, and drove post haste to Lefortovo prison. As they passed through that prison’s intimidating double gates, my father knew that his interrogators would try and break his spirit. It was a foregone conclusion that they would convict him for whatever trumped up charges they dreamed up for him, but that wasn’t their ultimate goal. What they really wanted was for him to publicly recant the causes he fought for — human rights in the USSR and most especially his and his friends’ right to emigrate to Israel. What they really wanted was to use his own forced confession to break the spirit of his comrades-in-arms in those fights.

He knew that to achieve this goal, the KGB would wage psychological warfare; they would try to intimidate and humiliated him, making him susceptible to threats or promises. And he knew that before he could win his battle against his interrogators (and by extension, the USSR as a whole), he would have to fortify himself within his heart and mind.

He had to make himself impervious to the KGB’s attempts to humiliate him. He did so by reminding himself that he was the only person who had the power to humiliate himself, and that other people’s actions didn’t really have a bearing upon his dignity and honor.

He had to make himself impervious to his interrogators’ threats of punishment by accepting the possibility of death — and oh, how they liked to slip the word “rastrel” (death by firing squad) into their interrogations! — as an acceptable and reasonable cost for staying true to his beliefs. You have to live for more than survival, as he has told me over and over again since I was a child. Otherwise, whoever holds a gun to your head owns you from the inside out.

But as he found out during those long months in Lefortovo, it wasn’t enough to steel himself against negative feelings. He had to build defenses against hope and love as well.

You have a young, beautiful wife who’s waiting for you in Jerusalem, his interrogators told him. Why fight us? Why doom yourself to die in the gulag? Recant, go home, and in a few years, we will let you join your wife in Israel. And then you can tell everyone that you didn’t really mean your repudiation of Zionism. Why martyr yourself instead of compromising now to save your life?

One interrogator brought up the example of Galileo Galilei to bring the point home. Galileo gave in to the inquisition’s pressure, publicly recanted his discoveries, and went on to pursue many more years of life and valuable research. Why not follow in such a giant’s footsteps? Do you really think you’re greater than Galileo Galilei, he asked my dad.

But it was this very example that armed my father against the KGB’s insidious use of love and hope and longing. Because he realized that if Galileo’s recantation could still be used to break people’s spirits centuries after Galileo lived and died, then each person’s decision to stay true to their truths matters beyond their personal fate. All of our souls are connected to one another, he later explained to my mother. One person’s brave stand can inspire others, where another’s weakness can weaken others for many generation’s to come. And so my father found the strength to hold firm under the KGB’s pressure, knowing that his decision would affect more people than himself.

* * *

Today, as our hostages come home in little groups, our guns are silent but the fighting didn’t really stop. Hamas, like the KGB before it, is merely focusing its efforts on the psychological arena, trying to utilize our emotions in its fight. We can’t afford to let our guard down in this war that is waged inside us. Like my father in his cell in Russia all those years ago, we have to win this battle in our minds.

Since October 7th, we have had to make ourselves impervious to fear and pain and terror. Like all terrorists, Hamas’ ultimate weapon is our own fear, and we sadly have a lot of practice in stopping this particular brand of weaponry from taking over our lives.

But now, Hamas is using not our fear but our joy, our happiness. And like so many people before us throughout history, we are called upon to fortify ourselves against positive emotions, too.

Our hearts are all different, and so our strategies in our war against Hamas’s psychological tactics cannot be the same. My father found strength in facing his fears head on and embracing them, and in remembering that his decisions would shape others, too. His example certainly shapes me, for one, in reminding me to fight against Hams today, but my war is different.

In my own battlefield of joy, I fortify myself by choosing carefully where to invest my time. I make myself impervious to our enemies’ mind games by avoiding prolonged news consumption and limiting my time on social media. I make myself stronger by immersing myself in anything that pulls me out of the immediacy of the moment — long term projects, deeper truths, my core beliefs — and thus strengthen the parts of myself that can stop my own emotions from hijacking my internal driver’s seat at an enemy’s command.

Only then, after I don my armor and prepare for battle, do I allow myself to look at those beautiful, happy picture, and feel the joy they bring me.

And then I set my joy aside to be felt fully, wonderfully, all-consumingly, later.

After we defeat our enemies and win the war, both in our minds and on the ground.

About the Author
Rachel is a Jerusalem-born writer and educator who's in love with her city's vibrant human scene. She writes about Judaism, history, and life in Israel for the Times of Israel and other online venues, and explores storytelling in the Hebrew bible as a teacher in Matan, Maayan, Torah in Motion, and Pardes.
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