Pinocchio at Columbia

A group called Students Supporting Israel (SSI) at Columbia University made my (and lots of other people’s) week with their response to one of those dreary “Apartheid Walls” that have marred campuses for years.

Since the turn of the Millennium, the strategy of the Israel despisers has been to constantly repeat their false “Israel = Apartheid” mantra and flood campuses with speakers, films, street theatre and events that present an unending stream of lies that buttress their accusations.

Such campaigns are predicated on two premises:

  • College students are stupid and easy to manipulate and will thus believe what they’re told if they’re loudly told it often enough
  • Israel’s defenders are weak and divided, and even if some of them might be able to rise to meet the challenge of the boycotters, those few who do can be bullied into submission through threats ranging from social ostracism to actual violence

Even with many voices warning us of “The Campuses in Flames,” I’ve always been a little skeptical of that first premise.  After all, if students were so easily swayed by anti-Israel propaganda, why have two decades of non-stop effort by BDS propagandists yielded little more than a dozen meaningless student government divestment votes coupled with zero actual divestment?  And why has Israel’s support within all segments of society (including the young) remained so high after years of smears by enemies of the Jewish state?

But today, I’d like to look at that second premise in light of how the Apartheid Wall threat was met on Columbia’s campus – with the erection of a twenty-foot high inflatable Pinocchio tied to an on-the-ground information campaign that pointed out everything written on that Apartheid Wall was a lie (including the punctuation).

As mentioned earlier, this was the activity of a group of students called SSI which, after deciding on this response to the Apartheid Week challenge, reached out for support from the group Artists for Israel who were able to provide them the crucial prop that anchored their counter-campaign.

For the few hours that the puppet balloon was flying, there was talk of nothing else by those who approached what SJP has presumed would be their unchallenged territory and narrative.  Students friendly to Israel took selfies in front of the giant icon, hundreds of kids looked at SSI information sheets that knocked down SJP falsehoods, with all this activity anchored by an image that hammered home the message that those behind Apartheid Week cannot be trusted to tell you the truth.

Another sign of the campaign’s effectiveness was the SJP response to it.  Simply, they went berserk and went to every length to get Pinocchio pulled down.

First they made a lame attempt at shaming (with one Jewish Voice for Peace member going so far as to claim Pinocchio’s nose made their display anti-Semitic).  When that didn’t work, they called in their student government allies who, clad in BDS t-shirts, pretended to impartially adjudicate the matter until they realized every ridiculous thing they were saying was being recorded.  Finally, these self-declared radicals ran for the man: trying to someone in power to shut down people who were disagreeing with SJP dogma.

While those efforts did finally bear fruit (Pinocchio came down and didn’t go back up), the few hours when this political theatre took place ensured that this is how the Apartheid Week narrative was going to play out in Columbia, with #FreePinocchio drowning out #FreePalestine.

Given our side’s tendency to always see the glass as half empty (which is why we prioritize fretting over toothless student government resolutions over celebrate the global explosion of anti BDS legislation), it would be too easy to dwell on negatives associated with this story, such as the wall staying up while Pinocchio came down, or the lack of support for SSI activity by other Jewish institutions on campus.

But this would be a mistake, and not just for tactical reasons.  For the war that’s being waged on Israel is an ongoing one, which means the propaganda arm of that war effort currently traveling under the name of BDS is also a long-term effort.

All propaganda takes advantage of human fondness for stories, including the fact that once a story gets lodged in someone’s head it becomes very difficult to shake off.  Thus the BDSer endless repeating of their Israel = Apartheid storyline for years and years and years, no matter how often it is debunked,  in hope that this is the story which gets lodged in the mind of the young.

But one can fight that process by (1) short circuiting this story-formation process through novelty and surprise (which interrupts and disrupts the BDS narrative as it is being delivered); and (2) providing an alternative story which immunizes people from assimilating the negative one.

This is what made the Columbia Pinocchio initiative so fabulous (and successful – regardless of how long their balloon stayed up).  For the sheer creativity and humor of their surprise campaign meant talk would be about Pinocchio and not “Apartheid Walls.”  And that icon helped push a different story: that BDSers are liars trying to manipulate students, a story which has the advantage of being true without turning into the kind of counter-attack on Palestinians, Arabs or Muslims that are difficult to sustain for reasons I’ve articulated elsewhere.

As anti-BDS legislation and other victories demonstrate, the forces of BDS are far less popular than they claim to be and their bullying, intimidating, hypocritical behavior (including crying to daddy to shut down people who disagree with them) coupled with their non-stop lying makes them especially vulnerable to tactics they don’t expect.

What they now expect us to do is to argue with each other over who supports and doesn’t support tactics like Pinocchio and then turn back to “safer” (i.e., more predictable) choices like handing out fliers (which they’ll ignore) and trying to ask tough questions at events where they control the microphone.  This is not to say that their programs should not be challenged in every way.  But, as we do so, we should use SSI’s campaign in Columbia as a lesson that we don’t need to always engage in tactics that other side already assumes is all we have in our repertoire.

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