“Paper Clips,” the award-winning Miramax-backed documentary that's been making the rounds this year and getting a lot of attention, is about a Tennessee school’s attempt to teach tolerance via the Holocaust. In 1998, two teachers at Whitwell Middle School conceived of the project, which had students collect six million paper clips, each one representing a life lost in the Holocaust—to bring home the numbers of people killed.
After many articles and TV segments appeared about the town of Whitwell, population 1,600, letters with paper clips began streaming in by the millions, including from Tom Hanks, Bill Cosby, George W. Bush, George H. W. Bush, Steven Spielberg, Madeleine Albright, Bill Clinton, and a lot of Germans.
Since the release of the documentary, the co-director of the paper clip project, teacher Sandra Roberts—who is also the film’s narrator--has been feted heavily by the Jewish community and has been touring the country with her message that, as she told her students, “This isn’t just about Jewish people. It’s about humanity.”
In other words, she and the kids are just catching up to the grand failure that half a century of Holocaust education has been.
Understandably, the Jews who are kvelling over “Paper Clips” are touched to find themselves included among the human race for a change. And certainly, Average Joe can benefit from platitudes, which may be meaningful in a town whose homogeneity is palpable even to itself and whose children may otherwise not know that a Holocaust is possible. But Jews shouldn’t expect projects like “Paper Clips” to benefit Jews.
Let’s be honest. Holocaust education hasn’t been about the Holocaust or Jews, but about humanism, just as Ms. Roberts thinks it should be. And so far, that’s only backfired on Jewish people.
A recent case in point came this past September 11th, when the Times of London reported that advisers appointed by Tony Blair after the London bombings to tackle extremism "are proposing to scrap the Jewish Holocaust Memorial Day because it is regarded as offensive to Muslims," and suggested a generic "Genocide Day" that would downplay the Holocaust as a defining event and European history's darkest hour. "The committees argue that the special status of Holocaust Memorial Day fuels extremists’ sense of alienation because it 'excludes' Muslims." The backfire came when Ibrahim Hewitt, chairman of the charity Interpal, said the inevitable: “There are 500 Palestinian towns and villages that have been wiped out over the years. That’s pretty genocidal to me."
If one were to try teaching about the Holocaust in a way that could actually prevent future genocide of Jews, rather than enshrine it as a single, time-suspended event, then anti-Semitism could be correctly seen as an ever-present disease -- and the Holocaust as its biggest manifestation. In fact, anti-Semitism would have to be taught as a mutating virus, an early strain killing off Jews because of their religion, a later one targeting Jews because of their blood, and today because of their Zionism. Maybe then more people would connect some dots and notice that the Jewish state is being dehumanized before our eyes, and that if Israel didn’t have the military power it’s criticized for, there would be another Holocaust tomorrow.
But instead of all that, and instead of conceiving of documentaries that could help teach children the danger of blaming Israel and “neocons” for the Iraq War or showing them how Arab children are being systematically primed to commit the next Holocaust -- Jews still sit around repeating “Never Again”, and coughing up scholarship money to send Whitwell kids to college, where they can pick up “rational” reasons to dislike Jews.
The paper clips are now up to 30 million, an apt number if it represents Jews dead from the Holocaust and Jews who will continue to die because of anti-Semitism. Eleven million of the paper clips were stuffed into a German boxcar which now sits in the schoolyard as a permanent monument to the six million Jews and five million other lives that Hitler’s camps and executions claimed. Many of the remaining paper clips have been given away to tourists (we learn this after the principal, choking back tears, tells us she answered a student that yes, of course you can feel the souls when you touch the paper clips).
Toward the end of the film, townspeople offer testimonials about how the project has made them better people, with one young teacher saying he feels guilty for using pejorative words while in college and that he hopes he didn’t hurt his black roommate’s feelings.
Ultimately, then, the moral of the story boils down to even less than a lesson in generic intolerance, to a loose analogy about any time anyone stereotypes anybody. Even a parallel between Holocaust victims and the townspeople is set up: “When people in the north and west look at southern children, they think ‘dumb little redneck children,’” Ms. Roberts says. “We’re trying to break these stereotypes.” Upon which a recurring twangy music comes on and we see slow-motion montages, shown at the beginning as well, of children’s fingers sifting through colorful paper clips--reminding the viewer that this has also been a lesson in numbers. (The idea came to Ms. Roberts when a student asked, “What’s six million? I’ve never seen six million anything.”) Counting, of course, sets the kids up to count lives lost in any death toll: One hundred thousand dead in Hiroshima? That’s a lot of paper clips! And how many Germans died in WWII? That's a lot of paper clips too!
The last line of narration is “We’ll never look at a paper clip the same way again.”
Indeed, with the film trivializing Holocaust lessons, a scenario comes to mind wherein someone in need of a paper clip and wanting to save himself two syllables simply asks for a Jew.
Those who cry over the wasted Jewish lives of the Holocaust while watching “Paper Clips” (and plenty do) should also shed a tear for the wasted Jewish talent and money that went into it.
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