Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Happy Passover - "They Tried to Kill Us, We Survived, Now Let's Eat"

An annual Passover feature, first posted in April 2006 HERE. Here is the gist of it:

The Basic Scenario:
According to one Jewish joke, the theme of all Jewish holidays is: "They tried to kill us. We survived. Now let's eat!"
(As a general rule, that's not completely accurate, but it captures a lot.)

The song:

That message was turned into a Passover song by the group What I Like About Jew. The lyrics are at the end of this post, and you can hear a performance of the song (not the best version I've heard, but the best available on YouTube) here:

Other versions here & here & here.

=> For further explanation, commentary, and interpretive wrangling about things Jewish, go back to the original post HERE.

--Jeff Weintraub

"They Tried to Kill Us (We Survived, Let's Eat)"

Artist: What I Like About Jew
Composer: Sean Altman and Rob Tannenbaum
CD Title:Unorthodox
Label: Big Sean Music and Tbaum Music

They Tried To Kill Us (We Survived, Let's Eat)
(words & music by Sean Altman & Rob Tannenbaum)

We were slaves to pharaoh in Egypt
The year was 1492
Hitler had just invaded Poland
Madonna had just become a Jew
Moses was found on the Potomac
Then he marched with Martin Luther King
He came back to free us from our bondage
'Cause S&M has never been our thing

They tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat
They tried to kill us, we were faster on our feet
So they chase us to the border
There's a parting of the water
Tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat

Then the Pharaoh, who looked like Yul Bruyner
Heard the Jews were trying to escape
Charlton Heston came right down from the mountain
He said, "Pharaoh, you're a damn dirty ape"
The menorah was almost out of oil
Farrakhan was planning Kristalnacht
The gefilte fish was nearing extinction
It looked like Moses and his flock were fehrkakt

They tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat
They tried to kill us, we were faster on our feet
And we knew how to resist
'Cause we'd rented Schindler's List
Tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat

The 10 Egyptian plagues
1. Blood
2. Locusts
3. Boils
4. Dandruff
5. Acne
6. Backne
7. Piles
8. Cataracts
9. Sciatica
10. Sickle cell anemia

We fled on foot, there was no time to tarry
Leavening the bread would take too long
All we had was egg foo yung and matzoh
While battling the fearsome Viet Cong
And so tonight, we gather to remember
The ancient Hebrews who paid the price
We have a Seder, every year in December
To commemorate our savior, Jesus Christ

They tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat
They tried to kill us, we were faster on our feet
So we never did succumb to the annual pogrom
Tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat

They tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat
They tried to kill us, we were faster on our feet
So come on, blow the shofar
'Cause they haven't nailed us so far
Tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat

The first woman to run in the Boston Marathon (1967)

In 1967 Kathrine Switzer entered the Boston Marathon, officially a male-only event, by signing her application form as K.V. Switzer.  As she was running, one of the directors of the marathon, Jock Semple, attacked her, started screaming at her, and tried to throw her out of the race.  (He's the guy behind her in the photograph above.)  Her football-player boyfriend, who was running with her, body-blocked Semple and knocked him off the road.  Switzer finished the race.

It's worth reflecting that 1967 wasn't really that long ago.  And this happened in the United States, not in Saudi Arabia.  Some useful historical perspective  ...

=>  For a video clip that includes a retrospective interview with Kathrine Switzer and some moments from the 1967 marathon, see below.

(Thanks to Mom's Clean Air Force for the tip.)

—Jeff Weintraub


Monday, April 21, 2014

The life and death of Sidney Weintraub (1922-2014)

Sidney Weintraub

   Sidney Weintraub (1922-2014)

Some of you may have wondered why I haven't been blogging during the past two months, and have been mostly incommunicado more generally.  (I know that such questions would have occurred to a very tiny portion of humanity at most; but there may be a few of you out there, and I feel I should offer you some explanation.)  The main reason is that  for the past two months most of my time, energy, and attention have been tied up with what proved to be the terminal illness of my father, Sidney Weintraub.

My father and my stepmother, Elizabeth Midgley, had a house in Cuernavaca, Mexico where they stayed from time to time.  In early February, during one of those visits, my father became very ill.  A long medical emergency followed, including hospitalization with intensive care followed by prolonged home care.  After he was released from the hospital on March 2, there were several periods when it looked as though he might be (slowly) recovering, but in the end it didn't happen.  He died early in the morning on Thursday, April 10—in their house in Cuernavaca, not in a hospital.  I spent a substantial portion of the past two months down in Cuernavaca, but my stepmother and I flew back to the US last Wednesday.

Normally, Jewish practice calls for a speedy burial.  But bringing my father's body back to the US from Mexico turned out to be very complicated bureaucratically and logistically, and further complications at the US end produced some further delays.  So my father's burial, with a graveside Jewish service, will take place next Monday, April 28, at the Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, DC.  (He'll be buried next to my mother, Gladys Weintraub, who died in 2001.)

 =>  After growing up in New York City, serving in Europe in World War II, and working briefly as a journalist, my father spent 26 years as a US Foreign Service Officer (with postings abroad in Madagascar, Mexico, Japan, Thailand, and Chile).  He got a Ph.D. in economics in the process.  Also, my sister Marcy was born in 1950  in Tananarive, Madagascar (now Antananarivo, Malagasy Republic); my sister Debbi was born in Mexico City in 1953; and I had my bar mitzvah in Bangkok, Thailand in 1960 (quite possibly the first recorded bar mitzvah in the history of Thailand, according to reliable sources).

Then, starting in January 1976, my father left the government and embarked on overlapping careers as an academic, think-tanker, public-policy advocate, and prominent expert on Mexico and US-Mexican relations.  (In 2006 the Mexican government awarded him the Order of the Aztec Eagle, the highest decoration granted by Mexico to foreigners.)  Among his other accomplishments, he's widely considered one of the intellectual fathers of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)—a distinction that has made him "revered" in some circles (as someone once put it to a friend of mine) and rather less revered in others, depending on people's opinions regarding NAFTA and its consequences. (On this subject, see here & here for a start.)  Throughout his adult life he was a committed New Deal Democrat (despite disagreements with some other Democrats on some issues), a quietly patriotic American with broadly internationalist sympathies, and a proud Jew.

 =>  My father's death is a blow, but at least he didn't suffer a lot at the end.  And he was just short of his 92nd birthday, so one has to concede that he led a long, full life—and quite a richly interesting and productive life, too.  We didn't agree about everything (in fact, when I was younger, there were substantial periods when we didn't agree about anything, serious or trivial—not an uncommon pattern in Jewish father-son relations). But he was an admirable, impressive, and profoundly decent man in both his personal relations and his politics, and I think that (despite everything) I learned a lot from him.

Memorial announcements, with brief obituaries, have been posted on-line by two institutions where my father worked after leaving the Foreign Service, the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas in Austin, where he was the Dean Rusk Professor of economics and public policy, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC, where he held the Simon Chair in Political Economy.  (He had to retire from the latter when he began to get Alzheimer's three years ago.)  I've put those two items, as well as a few others, on a memorial website for my father ... which is here, for anyone who might be interested.

Sidney Weintraub (1922-2014)

Jeff Weintraub

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Should the Iraqi Jewish Archive get sent back to Baghdad? (continued)

As I've already indicated, I believe strongly that the answer to that question is no. I signed THIS PETITION at Avaaz.Org, and I urge others to sign it, too:
"I call upon the US government NOT to return the Jewish archive to Iraq. To do so would compound the injustice done to the Jews of Iraq, whose property it was before they were robbed of it through a deliberate state policy of persecution and ethnic cleansing. The archive should be returned to its rightful owners and assured of proper care and conservation. We suggest it should go to Israel, where the greatest concentration of Jews of Iraqi descent are to be found."
For some further information, explanation, and consideration of the moral and legal issues involved, see here & here & here.

Last week the London-based blogger, journalist, and activist Lyn Julius, who posted the on-line petition quoted above, wrote a Huffington Post piece that forcefully restates the case against sending the Iraqi Jewish Archive back to Baghdad.  You can read it below.

=> The public protests against this move have begun to get some results. On January 16 a (carefully formulated) US Senate resolution was introduced by Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA), with 9 co-sponsors from both parties, calling for the US government "to renegotiate with the government of Iraq the provisions of the original agreement  [...]  to ensure that the Iraqi Jewish Archive be kept in a place where its long-term preservation can be guaranteed" and where it will be "accessible to scholars and to Iraqi Jews and their descendants [....]"  And back in November Iraq's ambassador to the US hinted at the possibility of a potentially workable compromise solution that would involve leaving the archive in the US on some kind of indefinite long-term loan.

I hope some kind of pragmatic solution can, in fact, be negotiated.  But the only reason why the Iraqi government—and, for that matter, the US government—might be willing to be flexible and accommodating in this matter is that a certain amount of political pressure has been mobilized to support the moral case against returning the Iraqi Jewish Archive to Iraq. And a great deal would depend on how the details of any potential agreement got worked out. So it's important for that political pressure to be maintained and increased.  So if you haven't already signed the petition, please consider doing so.  And contact your Senator's office.

—Jeff Weintraub

Huffington Post
January 22, 2014
This Miraculous Find Does Not Belong to Iraq
By Lyn Julius

One day in 1984, the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein sent his henchmen to Bataween synagogue, one of the last working houses of Jewish prayer in Baghdad. The men carted off a trove of books and documents retrieved from Jewish homes, schools and synagogues. The material had been deposited for safe keeping in the ladies' gallery. The few remaining Jews were aghast to see the archive driven away in trucks from under their noses.

Ten years have elapsed since the US military discovered 2,700 Jewish books and 10,000 documents in the waterlogged basement of Saddam's secret police headquarters in Baghdad. But the restoration work could not be done on the spot, and the provisional government (CPA) decided to ship the ' Iraqi-Jewish archive', as it became known, out to the US. The CPA signed an agreement promising that the archive would be returned as soon as the restoration was complete.

The archive was taken to the National archives depot in Texas and vacuum-freeze-dried. The US State Department has since spent over $3 million stabilizing, digitizing, photographing and cataloguing the material. Archivists worked painstakingly to save what they could, prizing pages apart, removing mould and watermarks, re-gluing and sometimes sewing bindings by hand.

Some 24 items were selected for display at the National Archives building in Washington DC, an incongruous sight alongside the US Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. The Discovery and Recovery exhibition attracted 16,000 visitors, a record for a temporary exhibition. The exhibition re-opens at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York on 5 February.

Among the key items are a 400-year-old Hebrew Bible; a 200-year-old Talmud from Vienna; a copy of the book of Numbers in Hebrew published in Jerusalem in 1972; a scroll of Esther; a Haggadah edited by the chief rabbi of Baghdad; holy writings published in Venice in 1568; a copy of Ethics of the Fathers, published in Livorno, Italy in 1928 with commentary written in Judeo-Arabic; a calendar with lists of duties and prayers for each holy day printed in Baghdad in 1972; a collection of rabbi's sermons printed in Germany in 1692; thousands of books printed in Vienna, Livorno, Jerusalem, Izmir, and Vilna; miscellaneous communal records from 1920-1953; lists of male Jewish residents, school records, financial records, applications for university admissions. This archive does not have great rarity value and the handwritten notes in the margins are more precious. But all in all, it is a unique record of Iraqi-Jewish history of primary interest to the Jews to whom the books belong - many of whom are still alive.

On a chilly December morning, in the presence of Iraqi government officials, the World Organisation of Jews from Iraq held a ceremony to bury unusable or pasool fragments of Torah scrolls at a Jewish cemetery in the aptly-named town of West Babylon, NY.

But the rest of the archive is scheduled to go back when the digitizing process is complete - probably in June 2014.

The prospective return of the Iraqi-Jewish archive has sent Iraqi Jews into paroxysms of outrage. US Jewish organisations, congressmen and senators have raised their voices in indignation. Several articles have appeared in the mainstream press and media calling for the archive not to go back to Iraq. Nearly 10,000 people have signed a petition.

Iraq is adamant: It wants the archive back. "They represent part of our history and part of our identity. There was a Jewish community in Iraq for 2,500 years," said Samir Sumaidaie, the former Iraqi ambassador to the United States. "It is time for our property to be repatriated."

Repatriated? That assumes that the archive was Iraq's property to begin with. There is a bitter irony in Iraq, which has driven its pre-Islamic Jewish community to extinction, having dispossessed them on the way out, demanding the return of 'its property'. It should be noted that the US shipped tens of thousands of documents out of Iraq after its invasion, but the forlorn and random reminders of Iraq's Jewish community are the only documents Iraq is insisting must be returned.

Legally, the US government did the correct thing to sign an agreement. Morally, it was a singular act of blindness.

The archive is the cultural property of the Iraqi-Jewish community, and save for five Jews still in Baghdad out of a community of 140,000, Jews no longer live in Iraq, but in Israel and the West. To return the archive to Iraq would be like 'returning stolen property to the Nazis'.
[JW:  It's not clear who first used that formulation, but it has become common among people who strongly oppose returning the archive to Iraq.  I think that if Iraq were still ruled by the fascist dictatorship of the Ba'ath Party, the analogy would be more precise than it is now.  But the destruction of Iraq's historic Jewish community was not exclusively or even primarily the work of the Ba'athist regime—that process began in the 1940s and was mostly completed by 1951, a decade and a half before the Ba'athists took power. And it's also true that post-WWII Germany accepted legal and moral responsibility for returning art works and other cultural objects looted by the Nazis. So the analogy does capture something significant about the issues involved here.]
When Iraq did have a Jewish community, the regime took every step to persecute and destroy it. What is there to stop Iraq losing interest in the archive the minute it arrives back on Iraqi soil? Or more likely - selling the items off on the international market to the highest bidder?

There are practical objections to return, too. Despite assurances to the contrary, Iraq itself does not have the resources to conserve and store the archive safely. Daily bombings and the advance of Al-Qaeda on Iraqi soil hardly inspire confidence.

Even if the archive is digitized and accessible online, Iraq's Jews and their descendants, 90 percent of whom are in Israel, will be debarred from access to the original documents.

The issue of the archive not only draws attention to the mass spoliation of nearly a million Jews driven from the Arab world, but is a test case. Here at last is a unique opportunity to return Jewish property to its rightful owners. Will the US take it up?

The petition asking the US government to stop the archive returning to Iraq may be signed here.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Why would a woman want to have an abortion?

I was reminded of this illuminating moment from a 2012 documentary on "The Abortion War", picked up by Rachel Maddow.  It's worth pondering.   --Jeff Weintraub

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

New evidence of "industrial scale" murder and torture of prisoners by the Syrian regime

The constant reports of death, destruction, atrocities, displacement, and overall human misery in the ongoing Syrian catastrophe have become so routine, and for some people so overwhelming, that there is widespread temptation to tune out. That's especially true since it's hard to see the possibility of a non-awful solution, and the main concern that most Americans and other westerners have when they hear about Syria is to avoid getting mixed up in the whole mess. So they'd rather not hear about it.

That temptation is understandable, but it should be resisted.  This catastrophe won't simply go away if Americans and Europeans ignore it—and just leave it to Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and other countries actively backing different sides in the Syrian civil war. It's also important not to let the whole picture fade into an undifferentiated blur in which all the actors in this civil war are equally guilty, responsible, and appalling. A lot of them are guilty, responsible, and appalling—but in different ways, and to different degrees.

Let's consider mass atrocities in particular.  It has been clear for a while that forces on all sides of this complex and chaotic civil war, which increasingly includes foreign fighters as well as Syrians, have been committing war crimes and other atrocities.  Those are obviously difficult to monitor very precisely from the outside.  But according to the independent organizations that do try to monitor and assess such things, it would be misleading to simply assume that the Assad regime and the opposition are equally guilty.  For example, in May 2013 Human Rights Watch reported that " the regime was responsible for the overwhelming majority of human rights abuses since the fighting broke out."  So far, that still seems to be true.

Those crimes include include executions, massacres, the indiscriminate shelling and bombing of civilian areas, and efforts to starve populations  in rebel-held areas into submission.  Human Rights Watch and other organizations have also found widespread evidence of torture, an old specialty of the Assad regime that has escalated during the civil war. Apparently, the evidence of torture available to them was only the tip of the iceberg.

According to yesterday's report in the Guardian:
Syrian government officials could face war crimes charges in the light of a huge cache of evidence smuggled out of the country showing the "systematic killing" of about 11,000 detainees, according to three eminent international lawyers.

The three, former prosecutors at the criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Sierra Leone, examined thousands of Syrian government photographs and files recording deaths in the custody of regime security forces from March 2011 to last August.

Most of the victims were young men and many corpses were emaciated, bloodstained and bore signs of torture. Some had no eyes; others showed signs of strangulation or electrocution.

The UN and independent human rights groups have documented abuses by both Bashar al-Assad's government and rebels, but experts say this evidence is more detailed and on a far larger scale than anything else that has yet emerged from the 34-month crisis.

The three lawyers interviewed the source, a military policeman who worked secretly with a Syrian opposition group and later defected and fled the country. In three sessions in the last 10 days they found him credible and truthful and his account "most compelling".

They put all evidence under rigorous scrutiny, says their report, which has been obtained by the Guardian and CNN.

The authors are Sir Desmond de Silva QC, former chief prosecutor of the special court for Sierra Leone, Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, the former lead prosecutor of former Yugoslavian president Slobodan Milosevic, and Professor David Crane, who indicted President Charles Taylor of Liberia at the Sierra Leone court.

The defector, who for security reasons is identified only as Caesar, was a photographer with the Syrian military police. He smuggled the images out of the country on memory sticks to a contact in the Syrian National Movement, which is supported by the Gulf state of Qatar. Qatar, which has financed and armed rebel groups, has called for the overthrow of Assad and demanded his prosecution.

The 31-page report, which was commissioned by a leading firm of London solicitors acting for Qatar, is being made available to the UN, governments and human rights groups. Its publication appears deliberately timed to coincide with this week's UN-organised Geneva II peace conference, which is designed to negotiate a way out of the Syrian crisis by creating a transitional government.

Caesar told the investigators his job was "taking pictures of killed detainees". He did not claim to have witnessed executions or torture. But he did describe a highly bureaucratic system.

"The procedure was that when detainees were killed at their places of detention their bodies would be taken to a military hospital to which he would be sent with a doctor and a member of the judiciary, Caesar's function being to photograph the corpses … There could be as many as 50 bodies a day to photograph which require 15 to 30 minutes of work per corpse," the report says.

"The reason for photographing executed persons was twofold. First to permit a death certificate to be produced without families requiring to see the body, thereby avoiding the authorities having to give a truthful account of their deaths; second to confirm that orders to execute individuals had been carried out."

Families were told that the cause of death was either a "heart attack" or "breathing problems", it added. "The procedure for documentation was that when a detainee was killed each body was given a reference number which related to that branch of the security service responsible for his detention and death.

"When the corpse was taken to the military hospital it was given a further number so as to document, falsely, that death had occurred in the hospital. Once the bodies were photographed, they were taken for burial in a rural area."

Three experienced forensic science experts examined and authenticated samples of 55,000 digital images, comprising about 11,000 victims. "Overall there was evidence that a significant number of the deceased were emaciated and a significant minority had been bound and/or beaten with rod-like objects," the report says.  [....]

The inquiry team said it was satisfied there was "clear evidence, capable of being believed by a tribunal of fact in a court of law, of systematic torture and killing of detained persons by the agents of the Syrian government. It would support findings of crimes against humanity and could also support findings of war crimes against the current Syrian regime."

De Silva told the Guardian that the evidence "documented industrial-scale killing". He added: "This is a smoking gun of a kind we didn't have before. It makes a very strong case indeed."   [....]

Crane said: "Now we have direct evidence of what was happening to people who had disappeared. This is the first provable, direct evidence of what has happened to at least 11,000 human beings who have been tortured and executed and apparently disposed of. [....]

Nadim Houry of Human Rights Watch said his organisation had not had the opportunity to authenticate the images. But he added: "We have documented repeatedly how Syria's security services regularly torture – sometimes to death – detainees in their custody.

"These photos – if authentic – suggest that we may have only scratched the surface of the horrific extent of torture in Syria's notorious dungeons. There is only one way to get to the bottom of this and that is for the negotiating parties at Geneva II to grant unhindered access to Syria's detention facilities to independent monitors.
(The full report is here.)

Contrary to a suggestion in the opening sentence of this Guardian article, Assad and his foreign backers probably feel he has little cause to worry about ever facing war crimes charges.  Or, if anything, that hypothetical possibility is just one more factor that strengthens his determination to hold on to power at all costs.  Meanwhile, Assad and his apologists clearly believe that they can effectively exploit the anxieties of western countries by portraying the Syrian  regime as a bulwark against "terrorism"—and, unfortunately, there are enough grains of truth in that ultimately false picture to give this propaganda strategy some chance of success.  But we should not forget what kind of regime we are actually dealing with here.

Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub

P.S.  CNN's TV report, which includes some pretty horrifying photos, is here.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Invitation to sign a public statement of principles defending academic freedom against "boycotts", blacklists, and other threats from various directions

Don't Let the Politics of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Undermine Academic Freedom
For over a decade there has been a persistent campaign to institute a blacklist—misleadingly and euphemistically described as a "boycott"—of Israeli academia.  Its goal is to stigmatize Israeli academics as a group and exclude them from international academic and intellectual life (with possible exceptions for individuals who actively express politically acceptable views) as a way of putting pressure on Israel.  Over time, in response to objections, some supporters of this campaign have tried to pretend—or have persuaded themselves—that the aim is confined to instituting a "purely institutional boycott" that (somehow) doesn't affect actual people.  But even when those claims are not simply disingenuous, in practice that is not a genuinely workable distinction.  (Some brief and cogent explanations of why that's true are here & here & here & here & here.)  And at all events, even the most carefully disguised "boycott" measures emanating from this campaign violate one of the key constitutive norms for the whole structure of academic freedom—namely, that academics and academic institutions should should not be punished for the actions of their governments.  

The most conspicuous manifestations of this campaign have been in the British Isles, starting with the 2005 blacklist resolution by the Association of University Teachers (AUT), later repealed by a vote of the full membership, and continuing with a string of actions by its successor organization the Universities & College Union (UCU).  In 2005 the AUT blacklist was strongly condemned as a violation of the basic principles of academic freedom and open intellectual exchange by a number of academic and scholarly associations on both sides of the Atlantic.  In the US, these included the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), the American Political Science Association (APSA), and the American Psychological Association (APA).  The American Sociological Association (ASA) followed suit in 2007, in response to a similar action by the UCU.  But the fever for academic blacklisting is no longer a purely British (and Irish) disease. In 2013 several US academic associations, beginning with Asian-American Studies, passed resolutions for a "boycott" of Israeli academia. The most recent and most serious one, which finally caught widespread public attention, was a "boycott" resolution passed in December by the American Studies Association (which we might call the Other ASA).

At the same time, academic freedom in Israeli universities has also been threatened by hostile political forces in Israel itself, and ideological passions surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have generated threats to academic freedom in other places and from sources on all sides of this conflict.

=>  There are many reasons why this boycott/blacklist campaign is a bad and pernicious idea.  I won't try to spell them all out here.  But one consideration  should be decisive by itself, whatever one's views on Israel, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and related issues. It is a striking example of what Julien Benda called the "treason of the intellectuals"—that is, assaults by intellectuals on their own fundamental interests and vocation—and a violation of the basic guild obligations of academia. It should not be hard for academics to grasp that blacklisting other academics because of their nationality and/or their affiliations attacks a key foundation of academic freedom.  If academics themselves make it clear that they don't take seriously the most fundamental principles of academic freedom and open intellectual exchange, then why on earth should we expect anyone else to take them seriously?  And taking those principles seriously also requires defending them against threats from all sources and directions.

Fortunately, the American Studies Association's academic "boycott" resolution has been condemned by a wide range of American universities and academic associations (a useful list, periodically updated, is here).  That's encouraging, but it would be a mistake to feel complacent.  These dangerous tendencies need to be fought on several fronts—and fought in the right ways, according to the right principles.

=>  A few of us, spearheaded by my friend Sam Fleischacker of the University of Illinois in Chicago, have set up an on-line petition intended to affirm the basic principles of academic freedom and open intellectual exchange in a non-partisan way that disentangles them from opposing positions regarding the Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, Zionism vs. anti-Zionism, etc.  Let me emphasize that this statement does not express a position on any of those larger political and ideological conflicts.  And it is not primarily intended to serve as a petition per se, aimed at a specific recipient, but as a public declaration of principles.

=>  I urge anyone concerned with the defense of academic freedom and open intellectual exchange to join in endorsing this public statement of principles.  Follow this link, read the statement, and look for the tab labeled "Sign the Petition".
Don't Let the Politics of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Undermine Academic Freedom
=>  You can see the list of signatures here.  At the moment, this statement has already been endorsed by over 150 people, including Todd Gitlin, Steven Lukes, Cary Nelson, Eric Alterman, Jeffrey Goldfarb, Gershon Shafir, Chad Goldberg, Michael Bérubé, Siva Vaidhyanathan, Cynthia Fuchs Epstein, Andy Markovits, Roger Friedland, Terry Winograd, Carol Winograd, Morris Dickstein, Ralph Luker, Alan Wolfe, Allan Silver, Robin Wagner-Pacifici, Donald Black, Jack Goldstone, Dan Slobin, Michael Walzer, Jeffrey Alexander, Carole Joffe, Fred Block, James Robins, Robert Fishman, Michael Kimmel, Rogers Brubaker, Michael Kazin, Jeanne Marecek, Steve Cornell, Claude Fischer, Anne Swidler, Nathan Glazer, Richard Swedberg, Christopher Jencks, Ilan Stavans, Maurice Samuels, Russell Berman, Ilan Troen, Robert Fine, Barry Schwartz, and Michael Schudson    ... among others.

—Jeff Weintraub

Don't Let the Politics of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Undermine Academic Freedom

We, the undersigned, urge our colleagues in the United States and across the world not to use the politics of the Israel/Palestine conflict to undermine academic freedom.

We are dismayed by the international campaign calling for a boycott of Israeli universities, manifested recently in the boycott resolution passed by the American Studies Association.

We do not agree that there is a meaningful distinction between boycotting universities and blacklisting individual scholars, nor do we think that universities should be held responsible for government policies.

Academic freedom means that the pursuit of knowledge is based on the merit of ideas, not on the nationality of scholars or their institutional homes, and not on the zealousness of political beliefs, no matter how fervently held. When academics themselves take the initiative to attack or undermine these principles, the results can be especially corrosive.

Academic boycotts are not the only danger to academic freedom linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the threats come from both pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel constituencies.

We are opposed to attempts to intervene in tenure cases on political grounds, whether with public fanfare, such as campaigns by pro-Israel groups to block the tenure of pro-Palestinian academics at Barnard College in New York and De Paul University of Chicago, or by the sometimes quieter, but no less pernicious, practices of discrimination in some departments by pro-Palestinian academics against scholars who support Israel.

The irony is that some who decry the attempt to boycott Israeli academic institutions are themselves undermining academic freedom. The Israel Ministry of Education did so when it attempted in 2012 to close a department at Ben Gurion University on patently political grounds. Some pro-Israel groups in the United States do so when they threaten or take legal action against American universities for anti-Israel political speech.

Partisans on all sides of this conflict seem increasingly willing to sacrifice the principles of academic freedom and, more generally, of the free expression and exchange of ideas. We call on our colleagues to resist this tendency, whatever their views of the conflict itself. Boycotts, blacklists, politically motivated interventions in tenure, and attempts to stifle speech do not belong in the university. They set an ominous precedent that can be used by intolerant and repressive movements of all sorts in the future. Everyone who values freedom should stand up against them.

Hamden Rice explains "what Martin Luther King actually did"

This passionate, acute, and illuminating piece was written back in August 2011, but it hasn't stopped being timely.  I was moved by it, and I urge others to read it and reflect on it, too.  You can read the whole thing here, but I've reproduced most of it below.

I do feel the need to add some caveats and qualifications.  By framing his piece in terms of what Martin Luther King "actually accomplished," Hamden Rice may actually be obscuring part of its central message.  What he's really talking about, as he points out himself during his discussion, are the accomplishments of the southern civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, or at least one very important dimension of what it accomplished.  King obviously played a crucial leadership role in that movement, but it was not a one-man show.  It was a movement of collective self-emancipation, made possible only by the active, courageous, cooperative, and disciplined participation of thousands of men and women (and children).  Through their active participation in this movement they not only helped to transform the world around them, but also transformed themselves in deeply empowering ways.  And that process of self-transformation and self-empowerment was part of what enabled them to change the world around them.  That's really Rice's central point here—and it's an important one..

I would also say that some of the conclusions Rice draws are overstated and one-sided.  But I think that's OK, if only because his discussion does help to bring out something significant about the southern civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s that is too often misunderstood or forgotten—it was a political movement, not just an accumulation of individual acts of "passive resistance"; and the strategy of "non-violent direct action" promoted by Martin Luther King was a profoundly political strategy.  (For some partial elaboration, I also recommend reading Juan Williams's reflections in 2005 on Rosa Parks as a political activist, which I picked up in a post I titled Tocqueville in Alabama.)  Of course, passing laws (and enforcing them) is an essential part of politics.  But political life, especially a politics of democratic citizenship, also encompasses a lot more.

Yours for the politics of active citizenship,
Jeff Weintraub

Daily Kos
August 29, 2011
Most of you have no idea what Martin Luther King actually did
By Hamden Rice

This will be a very short diary. It will not contain any links or any scholarly references. It is about a very narrow topic, from a very personal, subjective perspective.

The topic at hand is what Martin Luther King actually did, what it was that he actually accomplished. [....]

I remember that many years ago, when I was a smart ass home from first year of college, I was standing in the kitchen arguing with my father.  My head was full of newly discovered political ideologies and black nationalism, and I had just read the Autobiography of Malcolm X, probably for the second time.
A bit of context.  My father was from a background, which if we were talking about Europe or Latin America, we would call, "peasant" origin, although he had risen solidly into the working-middle class.  He was from rural Virginia and his parents had been tobacco farmers.  I spent two weeks or so every summer on the farm of my grandmother and step grandfather.  They had no running water, no gas, a wood burning stove, no bathtubs or toilets but an outhouse, pot belly stoves for heat in the winter, a giant wood pile, a smoke house where hams and bacon hung, chickens, pigs, semi wild housecats that lived outdoors, no tractor or car, but an old plow horse and plows and other horse drawn implements, and electricity only after I was about 8 years old.  The area did not have high schools for blacks and my father went as far as the seventh grade in a one room schoolhouse.  All four of his grandparents, whom he had known as a child, had been born slaves.  It was mainly because of World War II and urbanization that my father left that life.

They lived in a valley or hollow or "holler" in which all the landowners and tenants were black.  In the morning if you wanted to talk to cousin Taft, you would walk down to behind the outhouse and yell across the valley, "Heeeyyyy Taaaaft," and you could see him far, far in the distance, come out of his cabin and yell back.

On the one hand, this was a pleasant situation because they lived in isolation from white people.  On the other hand, they did have to leave the valley to go to town where all the rigid rules of Jim Crow applied.  By the time I was little, my people had been in this country for six generations (going back, according to oral rendering of our genealogy, to Africa Jones and Mama Suki), much more under slavery than under freedom, and all of it under some form of racial terrorism, which had inculcated many humiliating behavior patterns.

Anyway that's background.  I think we were kind of typical as African Americans in the pre Civil Rights era went.

So anyway, I was having this argument with my father about Martin Luther King and how his message was too conservative compared to Malcolm X's message.  My father got really angry at me.  It wasn't that he disliked Malcolm X, but his point was that Malcolm X hadn't accomplished anything as Dr. King had.

I was kind of sarcastic and asked something like, so what did Martin Luther King accomplish other than giving his "I have a dream speech."

Before I tell you what my father told me, I want to digress.  Because at this point in our amnesiac national existence, my question pretty much reflects the national civic religion view of what Dr. King accomplished.  He gave this great speech.  Or some people say, "he marched."  I was so angry at Mrs. Clinton during the primaries when she said that Dr. King marched, but it was LBJ who delivered the Civil Rights Act.

At this point, I would like to remind everyone exactly what Martin Luther King did, and it wasn't that he "marched" or gave a great speech.

My father told me with a sort of cold fury, "Dr. King ended the terror of living in the south."

Please let this sink in and and take my word and the word of my late father on this.  If you are a white person who has always lived in the U.S. and never under a brutal dictatorship, you probably don't know what my father was talking about.

But this is what the great Dr. Martin Luther King accomplished.  Not that he marched, nor that he gave speeches.

He ended the terror of living as a black person, especially in the south.

I'm guessing that most of you, especially those having come fresh from seeing "The Help," may not understand what this was all about.  But living in the south (and in parts of the mid west and in many ghettos of the north) was living under terrorism.

It wasn't that black people had to use a separate drinking fountain or couldn't sit at lunch counters, or had to sit in the back of the bus.

You really must disabuse yourself of this idea.  Lunch counters and buses were crucial symbolic planes of struggle that the civil rights movement decided to use to dramatize the issue, but the main suffering in the south did not come from our inability to drink from the same fountain, ride in the front of the bus or eat lunch at Woolworth's.

It was that white people, mostly white men, occasionally went berserk, and grabbed random black people, usually men, and lynched them.  You all know about lynching.  But you may forget or not know that white people also randomly beat black people, and the black people could not fight back, for fear of even worse punishment.

This constant low level dread of atavistic violence is what kept the system running.  It made life miserable, stressful and terrifying for black people.

White people also occasionally tried black people, especially black men, for crimes for which they could not conceivably be guilty.  With the willing participation of white women, they often accused black men of "assault," which could be anything from rape to not taking off one's hat, to "reckless eyeballing."

This is going to sound awful and perhaps a stain on my late father's memory, but when I was little, before the civil rights movement, my father taught me many, many humiliating practices in order to prevent the random, terroristic, berserk behavior of white people.  The one I remember most is that when walking down the street in New York City side by side, hand in hand with my hero-father, if a white woman approached on the same sidewalk, I was to take off my hat and walk behind my father, because he had been taught in the south that black males for some reason were supposed to walk single file in the presence of any white lady.

This was just one of many humiliating practices we were taught to prevent white people from going berserk.

I remember a huge family reunion one August with my aunts and uncles and cousins gathered around my grandparent's vast breakfast table laden with food from the farm, and the state troopers drove up to the house with a car full of rifles and shotguns, and everyone went kind of weirdly blank.  They put on the masks that black people used back then to not provoke white berserkness.  My strong, valiant, self educated, articulate uncles, whom I adored, became shuffling, Step-N-Fetchits to avoid provoking the white men.  Fortunately the troopers were only looking for an escaped convict.  Afterward, the women, my aunts, were furious at the humiliating performance of the men, and said so, something that even a child could understand.

This is the climate of fear that Dr. King ended.

If you didn't get taught such things, let alone experience them, I caution you against invoking the memory of Dr. King as though he belongs exclusively to you and not primarily to African Americans.

The question is, how did Dr. King do this -- and of course, he didn't do it alone.

(Of all the other civil rights leaders who helped Dr. King end this reign of terror, I think the most under appreciated is James Farmer, who founded the Congress of Racial Equality and was a leader of non-violent resistance, and taught the practices of non violent resistance.)

So what did they do?

They told us: -- whatever you are most afraid of doing vis a vis white people, go do it.  Go ahead down to city hall and try to register to vote, even if they say no, even if they take your name down.

Go ahead sit at that lunch counter.  Sue the local school board.  All things that most black people would have said back then, without exaggeration, were stark raving insane and would get you killed.

If we do it all together, we'll be OK.

They made black people experience the worst of the worst, collectively, that white people could dish out, and discover that it wasn't that bad.  They taught black people how to take a beating -- from the southern cops, from police dogs, from fire department hoses.  They actually coached young people how to crouch, cover their heads with their arms and take the beating.  They taught people how to go to jail, which terrified most decent people.

And you know what?  The worst of the worst, wasn't that bad.
.[JW:  Actually, this was far from "the worst of the worst [....] that white people could dish out".  In other periods of the history of the post-Civil War American south, white supremacists dished out a lot worse than they did during the 1950s and 1960s, which were brutal enough.  But Rice's basic point is on-target.  Black people had to act together to break free of a pervasive system of fear, intimidation, and humiliation.]
Once people had been beaten, had dogs sicked on them, had fire hoses sprayed on them, and been thrown in jail, you know what happened?  These magnificent young black people began singing freedom songs in jail.

That, my friends, is what ended the terrorism of the south.  Confronting your worst fears, living through it, and breaking out in a deep throated freedom song.  The jailers knew they had lost when they beat the crap out of these young Negroes and the jailed, beaten young people began to sing joyously, first in one town then in another.  This is what the writer, James Baldwin, captured like no other writer of the era.
Please let this sink in.  It wasn't marches or speeches.  It was taking a severe beating, surviving and realizing that our fears were mostly illusory and that we were free.

So yes, Dr. King had many other goals, many other more transcendent, non-racial, policy goals, goals that apply to white people too, like ending poverty, reducing the war like aspects of our foreign policy, promoting the New Deal goal of universal employment, and so on.  But his main accomplishment was ending 200 years of racial terrorism, by getting black people to confront their fears.  So please don't tell me that Martin Luther King's dream has not been achieved, unless you knew what racial terrorism was like back then and can make a convincing case you still feel it today.  If you did not go through that transition, you're not qualified to say that the dream was not accomplished.

That is what Dr. King did -- not march, not give good speeches.  He crisscrossed the south organizing people, helping them not be afraid, and encouraging them, like Gandhi did in India, to take the beating that they had been trying to avoid all their lives.

Once the beating was over, we were free.

It wasn't the Civil Rights Act, or the Voting Rights Act or the Fair Housing Act that freed us.  It was taking the beating and thereafter not being afraid.  So, sorry Mrs. Clinton, as much as I admire you, you were wrong on this one.  Our people freed ourselves and those Acts, as important as they were, were only white people officially recognizing what we had done.  [....]
[JW: Alas, those conclusions are greatly overstated and misleadingly one-sided, to put it mildly  But that's excusable, since Rice does capture a part of the truth than can help correct another one-sided picture.]

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Annals of wishful thinking – "Hitler Tamed by Prison" (1924)

Well, we all make mistakes. (Via Weird Universe.  Thanks to Doug Davis for the tip.  And yes, this is genuine, not a hoax.)  —Jeff Weintraub

(From The New York Times - December 21, 1924)


Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Richard Nixon on Philip Roth & the Jews

Here is an interesting and illuminating, though not surprising, passage in Adam Mars-Jones's LRB review essay on a recent book about Philip Roth, Roth Unbound.  (Thanks to Jeet Heer for the tip.)

Revelations from the White House tapes made it clear that Roth's brilliantly effective satire of Nixon and his inner circle in his 1971 book Our Gang really caught their attention, and they were irate. One recorded discussion between Nixon and Haldeman offers an intriguing blend of artistic, social-psychological, and ethno-political analysis. (Among other things, the first two lines of this exchange beautifully sum up almost two centuries of stereotypes about "Jewish art" and the "Jewish temperament".)
One of the high points of Roth Unbound is the extract from the tapes (recorded on 3 November 1971) in which Nixon considers his anti-Roth strategy:
NIXON: Roth of course is a Jew.

HALDEMAN: Oh yes … he’s brilliant in a sick way.

NIXON: Oh, I know –

HALDEMAN: Everything he’s written has been sick …

NIXON: A lot of this can be turned to our advantage … I think the anti-Semitic thing can be, I hate to say it, but it can be very helpful to us. I mean you hear a singer even as brilliant as Richard Tucker and he’s a Jew.


NIXON: He’s pushy …

HALDEMAN: There are a lot more anti-Semites than there are Jews, and the anti-Semites are with us generally and the Jews sure aren’t.
Haldeman was on-target there in all respects—though, of course, Nixon definitely had some Jewish supporters, both inside and outside his administration, including loyal aides. And it's still true that there are "a lot more anti-Semites than there are Jews" (especially if we're thinking on a global scale). Some philo-semites too, of course, but there's little doubt that the anti-semites heavily outnumber them. We seem to annoy a lot of people, for some reason.

—Jeff Weintraub

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Erdogan Agonistes – Will the AK Party and the Turkish Army join forces against the Gulenists?

When the question in the heading first occurred to me a few days ago, it was in a half-facetious spirit.  But now it's beginning to look less fanciful.  Just when it seemed that the inner machinations of the political crisis in Turkey couldn't get any more weird, they did.  And it's clearer than ever that from the perspective of Erdogan and his supporters, the conflict with the Gulenists has definitely escalated to the level of all-out, no-holds-barred political warfare.  Here are two straws in the wind:

=> January 2, 2014 (AFP):
Turkish Army Demands Retrial In Coup Plot Cases

Turkey’s military demanded a retrial for army officers convicted of plotting to topple the government, claiming the evidence was fabricated, media reports said Thursday. [....]

The move comes amid a growing political crisis sparked by a corruption probe that the government claims is a plot being waged against it by an organization with close links to the police and judiciary. [....]

In 2013, former army chief Gen. Ilker Basbug was jailed for life and scores of army officers, journalists and lawyers were imprisoned for their role in the so-called “Ergenekon” conspiracy, an alleged plot to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

In 2012, more than 300 active and retired military officers were sentenced to prison terms of up to 20 years in a trial that ruled that an army exercise in 2003, codenamed “Sledgehammer,” was an undercover coup plot against Erdogan’s Islamic-leaning Justice and Development Party (AKP). [....]

In its official complaint, the army said the evidence used in the trials against it had been fabricated and manipulated.

Police, prosecutors and judges handling the two cases ignored charges by defense lawyers that the evidence was fake, according to press reports.

However, the saga over the military trials has taken a new twist in the escalating feud between Erdogan’s government and the movement headed by US-exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen.

Erdogan’s top political adviser Yalcin Akdogan suggested last month that those who took action against the army were also those orchestrating the high-level corruption investigation against key government allies.

“Those who plotted against their country’s national army, intelligence, bank and the civilian government which won the heart of the nation know very well that they are not working for the good of this country,” Akdogan said in a column in the pro-government Star newspaper.
[JW: Given the source of the accusation, this rhetorical package--which lumps together the army, the security services, and the AKP government as victims of Gulenist conspiracies--is a bit astonishing. Akdogan is clearly willing to ignore the political risks involved in de-legitimizing the sweeping purge of the Army high command and the Kemalist "deep state" apparatus with which the AKP is inextricably associated.]
He was apparently referring to Gulen’s followers, who hold key positions within the police and the judiciary. [....]

Erdogan’s government has accused the Gulen movement of acting as a “state within state” by instigating the corruption probe.

Gulen, who left Turkey for the United States in 1999 after being accused of plotting to form an Islamic, has denied being involved in the investigation. [....]
=> January 6, 2014 (AFP/Reuters):
Turkey's Erdogan says he favors retrial of coup plot officers

Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has said he would not oppose the retrial of hundreds of military officers convicted of plotting a coup to overthrow the government a decade ago.

His comments come after the military last week filed a criminal complaint over the 2012-2013 trials, saying some of the evidence against officers had been fabricated.

"Our position on a retrial is a favorable one," Erdogan told reporters in Istanbul late on Sunday evening.

"There is not a problem for us about retrials as long as the legal basis is established. In terms of regulations, we are ready to do what we can," he added.

In 2013, former army chief General Ilker Basbug was jailed for life and a large number of army officers, journalists and lawyers received other prison sentences for their role in the so-called "Ergenekon" conspiracy, an alleged plot to overthrow Erdogan's government.

And in 2012, more than 300 active and retired military officers were sentenced to prison terms after the court ruled that an army exercise in 2003, codenamed "Sledgehammer," was also an undercover coup plot against the government.

The mass trials are widely thought to have been masterminded by the powerful movement of Fethullah Gulen, a self-exiled Muslim cleric living in the US state of Pennsylvania. [....]

But Erdogan's ruling AKP party has since become embroiled in a bitter feud with Gulen's Hizmet brotherhood over government plans to shut down its network of schools.

Erdogan's backers now accuse Gulen of orchestrating a probe into corruption within the government that has led to the resignation of three cabinet members and created a situation of political turmoil. Gulen denies any involvement with the scandal.

Erdogan claims the corruption investigation is a plot by internal and foreign enemies to topple his government, and has reacted by purging the police - which he once backed as a counterbalance to the military.

Media commentators have interpreted the latest moves to review the coup trials as a new de-facto alliance between Erdogan and the army against Gulen's movement. [....]
Interesting, if true. The repercussions could be wide-ranging. Then again, all this remains speculative. Stay tuned ...

—Jeff Weintraub

Friday, January 03, 2014

Did Kim Jong Un execute his uncle by feeding him to a pack of ravenous dogs?

Not long ago a very high-ranking member of North Korea's ruling elite, Jang Song Thaek, was suddenly purged and executed.  In a hyper-Stalinist regime like North Korea's, that sort of thing seem normal enough.  But it appears that the method of his execution may have been a little exotic, at least in the context of a 21st-century government shake-up:
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's powerful uncle was stripped naked, thrown into a cage, and eaten alive by a pack of ravenous dogs, according to a newspaper with close ties to China's ruling Communist Party.  [....]  Hong Kong-based pro-Beijing newspaper Wen Wei Po reported that Jang and his five closest aides were set upon by 120 hunting hounds which had been starved for five days.
Is that story true?  I have no idea.  Perhaps it's just lurid propaganda.  But two things about this incident do strike me as interesting.

First, given what we know—and don't know—about North Korea and its ruling circles, this story doesn't seem inherently implausible. I'm not saying that it necessarily happened, just that it doesn't sound obviously impossible.  That's significant in itself.

Second, it's intriguing, and possibly significant, that this story appeared in a Chinese newspaper.  True, the newspaper is published in Hong Kong rather than China proper, but it's identified as "a mouthpiece for China's Communist Party."  Far from being an enemy of the North Korean regime, China is its indispensable patron and supporter.  But North Korea can also be a very irritating client.  I've read several accounts suggesting that the Chinese government may have been especially taken aback by the execution of .Jang Song Thaek, since he was one of the figures in the North Korean elite with whom they had especially good relations (and, indeed, some speculate that this may have been one of the reasons he got purged). Perhaps this article was a way of signaling displeasure.

If so, my (highly non-expert) guess is that it did not alarm Kim Jong Un and his circle in the slightest.  They no doubt feel confident that, no matter how upset the Chinese government gets, it is not going to stop propping them up with economic subsidies and other forms of support.  The fact that North Korea is a thoroughly dysfunctional economic basket case with a hermetically isolated, paranoid, and rigidly un-reformable regime is, paradoxically, one of the regime's major assets.  What most terrifies the Chinese government, along with a number of other governments, is the prospect of a North Korean collapse—which could generate unpredictable chaos on a massive scale, millions of refugees, and other unpleasant consequences.

Why, therefore, would a newspaper linked to the Chinese Communist Party want to publicly advertise the pathological weirdness of its North Korean client regime?  (That's quite separate from the question of whether or not this particular story is accurate or fabricated.)  This NBC News report offers the following speculation:
The newspaper has acted as a mouthpiece for China's Communist Party. The report may be a sign of the struggle between those in the party who want to remain engaged with North Korea and those who would like to distance themselves from Kim's regime.
Is that informed analysis, guesswork, or wishful thinking?  Who knows?  You can read the story and ponder for yourself what it means.

—Jeff Weintraub

P.S.  Anyone interested in the question of what actually happened to Jang Song Thaek might want to read Max Fisher's characteristically thorough and well-reasoned debunking of this report:  "No, Kim Jong Un probably didn’t feed his uncle to 120 hungry dogs".  (Thanks to James Jesudason for the tip.)  Apparently, the Hong Kong newspaper that ran this story has a reputation for being sensationalist and unreliable, and that's just one of several reasons for being skeptical.  Also, the number 120 did seem excessive.  However, one can't help noting that Fisher feels compelled to hedge by including the word "probably":  "The only problem [with this story] is that it's probably – probably – not true."  With North Korea, you never know for sure.

NBC News
January 3, 2014
Kim Jong Un's executed uncle was eaten alive by 120 hungry dogs: report
By Eric Baculinao and Alexander Smith

BEIJING -- North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's powerful uncle was stripped naked, thrown into a cage, and eaten alive by a pack of ravenous dogs, according to a newspaper with close ties to China's ruling Communist Party.

The man who was believed to be in charge of training his young nephew to take over was executed as a traitor, indicating a shake-up in Kim Jong Un's regime. NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.

Jang Song Thaek, who had been considered Kim's second-in-command, was executed last month after being found guilty of "attempting to overthrow the state," North Korea’s state-run news agency reported.

The official North Korean account on Dec. 12 did not specify how Jang was put to death.

U.S. officials told NBC News on Friday that they could not confirm the reports. "This is not ringing any bells here," said one senior official.

Hong Kong-based pro-Beijing newspaper Wen Wei Po reported that Jang and his five closest aides were set upon by 120 hunting hounds which had been starved for five days.

Kim and his brother Kim Jong Chol supervised the one-hour ordeal along with 300 other officials, according to Wen Wei Po. The newspaper added that Jang and other aides were "completely eaten up."

The newspaper has acted as a mouthpiece for China's Communist Party. The report may be a sign of the struggle between those in the party who want to remain engaged with North Korea and those who would like to distance themselves from Kim's regime.

Jang was seen by many experts as a regent behind North Korea's Kim dynasty and a key connection between the hermit nation and its ally China.

In the highly scripted execution, North Korea accused him of "attempting to overthrow the state by all sorts of intrigues and despicable methods with a wild ambition to grab the supreme power of our party and state."

Kim's government also accused him of of corruption, womanizing, gambling and taking drugs, and referred to him as "despicable human scum."

Jang was married to Kim's aunt, Kim Kyong Hui, the younger sister of Kim Jong Il.