JFK and the Gettysburg Address

Thousands of years ago, humanity came into existence, a partner conceived in the image of God, dedicated to the pursuit of morality, truth, peace and love.

What lies before us now is a great debate of whether this human race can stand the test of time, can make the necessary sacrifices for the good of all.  We face grave decisions of life and death, war and peace, ultimate issues including the survival of our planet.  The battle-field of existence, the sacred ground on which we seek to endure, is being tested, stretched, as we grapple with delusional hopes of unending limits on our finite resources.  Will those who give their lives have died in vain?

Yet, in a larger sense, will we also dedicate our own lives to the realization of the original purpose of our creation?  With vision and courage, will a world of promise be delivered to our children and grandchildren?

With boldness, and bluntness, we must move beyond conversation, debate, excuses and willful blindness, as the great leaders of the past, one of whom we honor this night, 50 years on from his tragic death, sought to inspire us towards.  Invoking the name of God, the Creator and Sustainer of all, we imagine a day when war and bloodshed cease, when a great peace shall embrace the whole world.

Soul-stirring rhetoric, with its ability to move an individual, or a nation, stands silenced when that movement doesn’t lead to soul-stirring action.  We, the memorializers of Auschwitz, stand as witnesses to Darfur, Syria, Congo; we, the memorializers of Columbine stand as witnesses to Sandy Hook; we, the memorializers of the Great Depression stand as witnesses to the economic maladies of our day; oratory that fails to move us to brave response falls deaf on the ears of history.  It is rather for us here dedicated to the great task remaining before us: that peace, prosperity, equality, freedom and love shall win out over the forces of darkness and despair.  May we never cease from our efforts until we reach our own “last full measure of devotion.”

Remembering the John F. Kennedy assassination: Sabbath eve: November 22, 1963

The twenty-second of November, 1963 was, as traditional Jews say, a “short Friday.” At Rambam Torah Institute, the Orthodox day school on West Pico Boulevard at which I was a ninth-grade student, the day's teaching schedule had been compressed accordingly. Around 11:20 a.m., as a bell signaled our dismissal from morning Hebrew studies, a pair of students came bursting across the playground, yelling for all the world to hear, “Kennedy's shot! Kennedy's shot!”

Fifty years?  Doesn’t seem possible, but there you are: “Ask not…”  Ich bin ein Berliner…. “You can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you, Mr. President.”   Like Pearl Harbor little more than 20 years earlier, the JFK assassination is what separates generations: “Where were you…?”

I was growing up in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, then as now a largely Jewish enclave amidst the City of Angels, In late October, my extended family had gathered to celebrate my Bar Mitzvah.  The Biblical Hebrew text I intoned from the bima that Shabbat morning might have been spoken by the Lord to Abram, but doubtless applied to the benevolent superpower within whose peaceful shores we dwelt: “And I shall make of thee a great nation, and I shall bless thee, and make thy name great…” 

Like all good Jewish youngsters an avid baseball fan, I mailed a Bar Mitzvah invitation to L.A. Dodgers uber-hurler Sandy Koufax, fresh from leading his band of Chavez Ravine brothers to a four-game World Series sweep of the hated Yankees.  Though the future Hall of Famer never showed, I did receive a (mechanically) autographed picture-postcard – “Best Wishes, Sandy Koufax” – that seemed to add a proud exclamation point to the occasion.  

Then, almost before we knew it, the wrenching news from Texas that Black Friday – the real one – abruptly imbued everything that had come before with a trivial, through-the-looking-glass quality.  I vividly recall picking listlessly at my brown-bagged sandwich in the school lunchroom that midday, as teachers and students alike anxiously awaited word of the President’s condition.  Presently, an 11th-grade student walked by, clutching a small white transistor radio.  As he passed, I caught a tinny burst of instrumental music, the mind-ingrained melody an instant punch to the gut: And the rockets’ red glare…

Young as we were, horrifying as the day’s events were, we were fortunate at least in that our traditional Jewish upbringing afforded us a sort of emotional safety net.  For this was not only Friday, but also Erev Shabbat – Sabbath eve.  That afternoon, even as I watched the bizarre black-and-white images flickering across our antiquated household television screen – a Stetson-wearing Dallas police detective holding aloft a bolt-action rifle,  JFK’s casket arriving at Andrews Air Force Base, a somber Lyndon Johnson addressing the nation for the first time as President – I took instinctive comfort in the familiar rituals of the approaching Sabbath: the aroma of freshly baked challah, a pot of soup simmering on the kitchen stove, even the smell of fresh polish on a pair of dress shoes.

Before long, it was time to stroll to our local synagogue for Friday evening services. KENNEDY DEAD, screamed the Preview editions of Saturday’s L.A. Times sitting in the news-racks at Pico and Robertson. At shul, before making Kiddush, the rabbi broke precedent and spoke, lauding JFK and his support of Israel.

Following our own Kiddush and Sabbath dinner at home, it was time for Birkhat ha-Mazon, the Grace After Meals.  By tradition, the after-meal blessings are preceded on the Sabbath and Festivals by recitation of the 126th chapter of the Book of Psalms. This is one in a series that carries the introductory designation Shir ha-Ma’alot – a song of degrees, or ascents.

“Those who sow with tears,” we sang in Hebrew, “in glad song shall they reap.” As our voices rose, the ancient words seemed to take on powerful new resonance. One Shabbat would soon follow another, we realized, and a few weeks hence our homes would be filled with the reassuring glow of Chanukah candles.  However strange and unpredictable things seemed on this new side of time, life would go on; the nation would recover. We would ascend from our grief; we would once again sing with joy.

Twenty-six hundred Sabbaths later, the torch has once again been passed to a new generation, one with no direct memory of the Kennedy presidency,  Yet, JFK’s life and legacy – his all-too-human shortcomings notwithstanding – continue to resonate in our national life, and to inspire millions more around the globe.  The ner tamid – the eternal flame of Jewish tradition – burns brighter than ever, even as JFK’s eternal flame at Arlington challenges us to ever strive for greatness.

May his memory be for a blessing.  May we sing with joy, always.

Lewis Van Gelder

U.S. response to a cry for help during World War II

A prosecutor by training and a historical novelist by avocation, Gregory J. Wallance has written books of historical fiction and historical nonfiction. In “America’s Soul in the Balance: The Holocaust, FDR’s State Department and the Moral Disgrace of an American Aristocracy” (Greenleaf Book Group Press: 2012), a highly readable, brief account of the dramatic interplay between the Department of State and the Department of the Treasury during the Holocaust over the fate of the Jews of Europe, Wallance tells quite a story and masterfully documents the well-deserved indictment of the World War II-era U.S. State Department.

The evidence he musters is well known to scholars, yet he brings fresh eyes to this material and introduces a factor that others have raised merely in passing — the issue of class and of the White Anglo Saxon Protestant (WASP) establishment, which was then at the peak of its power. The WASP supremacy would soon change, however, as the sons and daughters of American ethnic groups came of age during the middle decades of the 20th century, and with the election of John F. Kennedy, who always remembered that he was an Irish Catholic, a scorned outsider to the WASP establishment. Beginning with the JFK presidency, we witnessed a broadening of the American establishment with the entry of Catholic and Jews and, somewhat later, African-Americans and women, and now Asians and Latinos.

Wallance takes us inside the corridors of the State Department, then housed in what is now the Old Executive Office Building, across from the White House. He captures the tragic tension between Sumner Welles, the undersecretary of state with deep personal ties to the president, the man in the State Department most sympathetic to Jews, and his boss, Cordell Hull, a former senator and politician with deep Southern roots — married to a woman of Jewish ancestry — who, frankly, was not up to the task of being a wartime secretary of state. At the peak of the German annihilation of the Jews, a sexual and racial scandal destroyed Welles’ career. On a presidential train, he is reported to have solicited sex from an African-American porter. Hull did not get mad at his insubordinate subordinate, he got even. 

Wallance also takes us a floor above to the high level of the American State Department bureaucracy, where men — and they were then virtually all men — of similar background, class and education were quite certain that they — perhaps even they alone — knew what was in the best interest of the nation, without interference from outside agitators and special interests, such as Jews, who were concerned about the fate of their brethren and not just about the pursuit of war. He also takes us back to the prep school of Groton, where they were taught the values of national service and also of WASP supremacy, even before getting their Ivy League education.

He details the failure of the State Department to turn over  Gerhard Riegner’s telegram to Rabbi Stephen Wise, informing the head of the World Jewish Congress of the Final Solution to the Jewish Problem “because of the fantastic nature of the allegations and the impossibility of our being of any assistance if such actions — the murder of the Jews — were taken,” as if it were better not to know than to know and be unable to be of assistance.

Historian Walter Laqueur had it right: With regard to rescue, the pessimists won. They said that nothing could be done, and nothing was done. The optimists, those who believed in rescue, were never given a chance. They may have failed, but to not attempt rescue was to ensure failure.

Wallance depicts the famous confrontation between the State Department and the Treasury Department over the issuing of a license to transfer foreign currency, and thus ransoming the Jews. It was this confrontation, and the State Department’s effort to thwart the rescue, that led young Treasury Department officials to draft their “Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government to the Murder of the Jews.” Among the accusations in the report, it said the State Department had: “used Governmental machinery to prevent the rescue of these Jews; … taken steps designed to prevent these [rescue] programs [of private organizations] from being put into effect; … surreptitiously attempted to stop obtaining of information concerning the murder of the Jewish population of Europe” and “tried to cover up their guilt by: a) concealment and misrepresentation; b) the giving of false and misleading explanations for their failures to act and their attempts to prevent action; and c) the issuance of false and misleading statements concerning the ‘action’ which they have taken to date.”

Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. condensed this report, softened its title and took it to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in January 1944. The result was the War Refugee Board — with Morgenthau as chairman — which finally had the power to do something about rescue.

Throughout the book, Wallance does not let the reader lose sight of what these “great” men of history did not consider, namely that the decisions they made and the policies they pursued impacted real people, desperate people — men, women and children. Ruth Glassberg, then a young child, is his narrator, and her story is riveting.

With his skill as a writer evident, his sense of the scenery and the dialogue, Wallance takes us into the corridors of power. We meet Gerhard Riegner, then a young official of the World Jewish Congress operating in neutral Switzerland who first learns of the “Final Solution” of death camps and of Zyklon B. We are introduced to his informant, who has high contacts in the German government as a major industrialist and travels to Switzerland first to reveal the plans to attack the Soviet Union and then a second time to speak of the murder of the Jews. He is a source of absolutely significant and “incredible” information. It took 40 years for Eduard Schulte’s name to be known, as Riegner had promised him anonymity. We are taken to Poland’s embassy in the United States, when Jan Karski, the great Polish courier, told of the demands of the Jews he met in the Warsaw ghetto to Felix Frankfurter and Ambassador Jan Ciechanowski in preparation for his meeting with FDR.

We feel that we are literally in the room as Randolph Paul, general counsel of the Treasury Department, along with John Pehle and Josiah DuBois Jr., confront Secretary Morgenthau with their findings and their insistence on action. Wallance’s narrative is not imagined, but based on the diary of one of the participants. Thirty years ago, I examined DuBois’ most personal papers and attempted to describe the scene in Morgenthau’s office and also the moment when Donald Hiss showed DuBois the missing link in the evidentiary trail that sealed his case against the State Department. My hat is off to Wallance for the sheer pleasure of reading his depiction.

He is less prone to blame Jewish institutional politics and the divisions among Jewish leadership than David Wyman, and places responsibility directly in the hands of an establishment that failed the test in the Jewish people’s greatest hour of need. Wallance is quick to emphasize the distinct and controlling way in which Roosevelt controlled his cabinet and played off the interpersonal rivalries. Not all blame comes from FDR’s desk, and Wallance credits the war effort.

Wallance’s judgment is balanced. He allows his case to build brick by brick, story by story, document by document. He is careful to stress that the State Department of today shares little in common with its World War II predecessor, both in class and in background — a point that is easily forgotten by many, as the State Department and the Department of Defense and the White House now may hold in their hands the fate of the rebuilt Jewish community in Israel.

One may read more scholarly accounts of this period, but it is unlikely one will read a more vivid account that is both responsible and detailed without being too dense or drowning the guts of the story in myriad facts. Imagine a prosecutor presenting his case and a novelist writing his story. Consider Wallance’s mastery of detail and ability to present such detail in a compelling manner. The reader will not be disappointed.

‘The American Bible’: …With liberty, justice and religion for all

The biblical reference in the title of Stephen Prothero’s “The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation” (HarperOne: $29.99) is purely metaphorical. Although Prothero is a professor of religion and the best-selling author of “Religious Literacy” and “God Is Not One,” his new book is an anthology of writings and other works of authorship that amount to a mostly secular American canon, ranging from the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” to “The Gettysburg Address” and “Civil Disobedience” to the Supreme Court decisions in Brown v. Board of Education and Roe v. Wade.

To be sure, Prothero characterizes his collection as a spiritual enterprise.  The various entries are categorized under scriptural headings, ranging from “Genesis” and “Chronicles” to “Gospels,” “Acts” and “Epistles.”  But only a few of the writers whose texts are singled out were themselves clergy, and there are actually more songwriters — Francis Scott Key (“The Star-Spangled Banner”), Irving Berlin (“God Bless America”) and Woody Guthrie (“This Land Is Your Land”) — than men of the cloth; in fact, only two clergymen, Martin Luther King Jr. (“I Have a Dream”) and Malcolm X (“The Autobiography of Malcolm X”), are listed as authors of the principal texts, although many of the commentaries originate with ministers and preachers.

Prothero insists that American culture and identity can be understood as “a religion of sorts,” but he is just as insistent that there is no such thing as an American creed. “Our republic of letters is a republic of conversation constituted, divided, reconstituted, and maintained by debate over the meaning of ‘America’ and ‘Americans,’ ” he writes. “Americans agree to a surprising degree about which symbols and ideas are central to our national life, but we disagree profoundly about what these symbols and ideas mean and how they ought to be translated into public policies.”

Indeed, Prothero explains his book as “an effort to construct an American Talmud,” that is, a core text that can only be understood through the commentaries that are built upon it. “My chief criterion,” he explains, “has been the ability of a given text to generate controversy and conversation.” The principal of selection explains why a single sentence (John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you …”) and even a single phrase (Ronald Reagan’s reference to the Soviet Union as an “evil empire”) are included in the canon. 

More typically, however, Prothero gives us a generous excerpt from a core text and then provides various passages that reflect the text in one way or another. For example, he opens the book with the Exodus story as it appears in the Bible, but only as a starting point for a selection of writings that echo the biblical text — the slave spiritual “Go Down, Moses,” a note from Benjamin Franklin that was found among the papers of Thomas Jefferson and a 19th century writer who compared the Mormon leadership to Muhammad and Moses. All of the short commentaries, according to Prothero, show how the liberation of the Israelite slaves from Egypt can be seen as “the American story — the narrative Americans tell themselves to make sense of their history, identity, and destiny.”

Some entries are eccentric but also highly imaginative. One of the core documents in the collection is “The Blue Back Speller” of Noah Webster, a famously secular reference work first published in 1783 by a man whom Prothero characterizes as one of America’s uncredited Founding Fathers. “Nothing has a greater tendency to lessen the reverence which mankind ought to have for the Supreme Being,” explained Webster, “than a careless repetition of his name upon every trifling occasion.” Significantly, both Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, and Booker T. Washington, a former slave, are among the writers whose praises for “The Blue Back Speller” are included in “The American Bible.”

Very few texts by women are included in the collection, a fact that Prothero readily acknowledges and explains: “For better or worse,” he writes, “dead white men have had outsized influence over the course of U.S. history.” And when he does include a work whose author was female, his choices are a bit of a stretch. Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” is one: “There is no more polarizing novel in American literature,” he concedes, and it’s significant that we are not offered an opportunity to read an excerpt from the book because, as Prothero points out, permission to do so was denied by the Estate of Ayn Rand — a fact that is a commentary in itself.

Another work by a woman is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., the only contribution in the collection that is not, strictly speaking, a text. The excerpt, such as it is, consists of some of the names inscribed on the stone surfaces of the monument: “Dale R Buis, Chester M Ovnard, Maurice W Flournoy” and so on.  Among the commentaries is one provided by Maya Lin, the architect who designed the memorial: “[T]his memorial is not meant as a monument to the individual,” she explains, “but rather as a memorial to the men and women who died during this war, as a whole.” Only a few of the other commentators acknowledge the fact that Lin’s work is a powerful anti-war statement, but Bill Clinton is among them: “Let us continue to disagree, if we must, about the war,” he said. “But let us not let it divide us as a people any longer.”

Although “The American Bible” reaches back to the beginnings of our democracy, Prothero is mindful of the noisy media environment in which we actually live today. “[I]t is difficult to enter into the rough and tumble of contemporary American policies and exit with one’s hope (or one’s dignity) intact,” he observes. But he encourages his readers to use his collection as a book of maps that will guide readers back to the original texts: “Why allow John Boehner or Nancy Pelosi to dominate your book group,” he suggests, “when Jefferson, Lincoln and King are in the room?”

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs at books@jewishjournal.com.

The torch has been passed

JFK fans have been there before

Caroline Kennedy is deeply moved by people who say this: That they felt inspired and hopeful about America when her father was president.

I was one of them, but younger than most and in awe, early on.

I told my parents I was going to hear John F. Kennedy’s acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention. I was 12 years old. Times were different. I went alone, on the Olympic Boulevard bus, transferring at Vermont, then walked a few blocks. I arrived early for a good seat, but the Los Angeles Coliseum was more empty than full.

Why was I drawn so profoundly to John F. Kennedy?

Eisenhower was the president then. Ike was bald, perhaps older than my grandfather was. He seemed awkward; he practically stuttered. What’s more, I heard he was always playing golf. (Robert Welch, the paranoid leader of the John Birch Society, suggested that Eisenhower might be a closet communist. “He’s not a communist,” sarcastically responded conservative sage Russell Kirk. “He’s a golfer.”)

Anyway, JFK had more hair than my father did, and he was younger. He spoke with confidence and optimism. And he played touch football.

Kennedy had energy. It was called vigor or, as JFK said, “vi-guh.” I did not know about Camelot, but if this was politics, I wanted to be part of it.

There was a missile gap, JFK said. That sounded ominous, because in school we had bomb drills, where we went under the desk, in case the Soviet Union attacked. Worse, Eisenhower allowed communist Fidel Castro to come to power in Cuba, “90 miles off our shores.”

And there was Jackie, pretty, sophisticated, glamorous. How could Pat Nixon compete? And as for Dick Nixon in the debate, he looked older than his years, drawn and tired, with a five o’clock shadow. But how could I know then about botched makeup? Or that radio listeners gave Nixon the debate, but the dominant television audience rated JFK the winner?

I felt a personal triumph as Kennedy was elected. I had pride in him, pride in my country. And I was a part of all this. Soon there would be the Peace Corps and Alliance for Progress and the space program. And President Kennedy had those weekly news conferences that I watched after school. He was witty, charming, smiling. If only I knew he spent more time than Eisenhower playing golf, and there never was a missile gap.

Caroline Kennedy says she never had a president who inspired her the way JFK inspired me. In fact, it was because of JFK that I got into politics. I volunteered every day after junior high school, and on weekends, to work at the Kennedy headquarters at Wilshire and La Brea.

I had lost my political virginity. And somewhere along the way, I would lose my way, entirely. In the Fairfax area, where Republicans feared to register, I would become the closest thing to a teenage werewolf — a teenage Republican. Before the next presidential election, my idol would be Barry Goldwater, I would become a leader in Young Americans for Freedom and make history in the conservative movement. I would elect some of the biggest names in American conservatism.

What happened?

For me, it was the Bay of Pigs, the invasion of Cuba. Even at age 13, I was disillusioned as I learned a new vocabulary word — “fiasco.” JFK abruptly had denied promised air support to what I viewed as freedom fighters and liberators. They were hung out to dry, or die, in the invasion. I felt he betrayed them … and me. After all, JFK had said we would “bear any burden, pay any price” for freedom. But he seemed to get cold feet.

History would record, his supporters said, that JFK was prudent, even if tardy, in failing to honor a reckless CIA commitment. I did not see it that way then, and I have never looked back.

More than a year later, the Berlin Wall was built. I was too young to know that East German troops were acting illegally. But what they did seemed wrong, evil. And President Kennedy, who seemed so strong and dynamic as a candidate, stood by. When I would later read that Goldwater asked about communism, “Why not victory?” the words would be music to my ears.

But I was not there yet. My patriotic faith in JFK had been renewed in October 1962 when President Kennedy went “eyeball to eyeball” with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev who, it was said, blinked. The Soviets reportedly withdrew missiles from Cuba, and America was safe again. (I later learned JFK signed off on a secret protocol to accommodate the Soviets in Turkey.)

But I began to wonder — why would the Soviets be so bold, unless they thought they could get away with it? JFK had seemed to be the kind of leader I wanted. But I soon began to read the criticism, and I asked myself — did he resolve a crisis that his own weakness created?

I did not know then what I know today. The Bay of Pigs invasion had occurred on April 19, 1961. Khrushchev consequently concluded JFK was weak. Barely seven weeks later, JFK went to Vienna for a summit with Khrushchev. Apparently, President Kennedy thought he had scored brownie points and earned trust with the Soviet leader by acquiescing to Castro’s reign. He also misjudged and underestimated the crude, shoe-pounding Soviet leader. But Khrushchev, as you would expect a tough Russian communist to do, took a full measure of Kennedy. He validated his view that JFK was squishy. Accordingly, he would later build the Berlin Wall and then authorize importing an offensive missile capability into Cuba.

Which brings me full circle to the new JFK. It is not merely the cadence in Barack Obama’s speech, but his daunting eloquence. He can both write and speak elegantly. Impromptu, he barely has to reach for the words; he makes connecting so easy. If only this election were an oratorical contest.

Conspiracy Theory

Did the Mossad kill JFK? Serious researchers hardly think so.Following a day of public protests, organizers canceled the college seminar in which a speaker would “prove” that Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency masterminded the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

However, the apparent victory for sanity may be illusory.

The incident casts a sharp light on the fevered subculture of conspiracy theorists, which is growing luxuriantly on the Internet and now is apparently seeking a foothold in academia.

On Aug. 18, the trustees of the South Orange County Community College District approved $5,000 to fly in four guest panelists to participate in a Sept. 26-28 seminar on who was behind the murder of Kennedy in November 1963. Saddleback Community College in Mission Viejo was to be the host.

Casting a tiebreaking vote to hold the seminar was Steven T. Frogue, president of the board of trustees. His vote was not entirely disinterested, since he was to teach the seminar.

Frogue is a high school history teacher who was allegedly transferred from one classroom to another, according to the Los Angelees Times, presumably for remarks that offended Jewish students and parents. He has been a persistent foe of the Anti-Defamation League and its regional director, Joyce Greenspan.

In a newspaper interview last fall, Frogue labeled the ADL “a group of spies,” and he declared that “Lee Harvey Oswald [Kennedy’s assassin] worked for the ADL…I believe the ADL was behind it.”

For the seminar, which the college advertised as a “high-quality community education” offering, Frogue invited an eclectic mix of “experts.” The one who received the most attention was Michael Collins Piper of Washington, D.C., author of “Final Judgment: The Missing Link in the JFK Assassination Conspiracy.”

Piper posits that the Mossad plotted the assassination. The reason, he asserts in his book, is that then Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and Kennedy “were involved in a heated dispute over Kennedy’s refusal to support Israel in its drive to build a nuclear weapon. Other authors have documented that this dispute, as much as anything, caused Ben-Gurion to resign.”

The ADL’s Greenspan, speaking at the college district board meeting, described Piper as a regular contributor to Spotlight, a notoriously anti-Semitic weekly, and as a Holocaust denier.

Both Michael Hirschfeld, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Committee, and Uri Palti, Israel’s deputy consul general in Los Angeles, had a one-word evaluation of Piper’s theory: “nonsense.”

Other slated panelists were:

* Sherman Skolnick, a self-described “traditional Jew” from Chicago who has been propounding a link between “rogue Mossad agents,” the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the apparent suicide of White House counsel Vincent Foster.

Skolnick, also an occasional Spotlight contributor, denied later that he had agreed to speak at the seminar.

* Talk-show host Dave Emory, who contends that top Nazis, who had fled Germany after its defeat, played a leading role in Kennedy’s assassination. Emory and Piper frequently tangle at JFK conspiracy seminars around the country.

* John Judge, who adheres to the views of the late New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (hero of the Oliver Stone film “JFK”) that the Kennedy assassination was the work of a cabal of homosexuals and the military-industrial complex.

Serious researchers of the Kennedy era reacted with incredulity and amusement when told of the “panel of experts.” One such analyst, Chip Berlet, said: “You couldn’t find…more embarrassing conspiracists in America. Even among conspiracy theorists, these people represent the outer limit.”

Various faculty members at Saddleback College immediately protested the planned seminar. The general public took notice after the Los Angeles Times published a front-page report three days after the board meeting.

Within hours, the story was picked up by wire services and radio talk-show hosts, and phone calls from some 200 angry protesters deluged the college district offices. A considerable number of supportive messages were also logged by the ADL.

In the midst of the furor, Frogue announced that he was canceling the seminar, but that he would hold it at some future date away from the college and without its financial support.

Robert Lombardi, chancellor of the college district, described the public reaction as “pretty intense and somewhat surprising.”

He had earlier defended holding the seminar on the basis of First Amendment free-speech rights and the college district’s prerogative to offer courses appealing to “special interests.” For instance, Lombardi said, “we also offer a course on California wines.”

The American Civil Liberties Union, which frequently intervenes in perceived free-speech violations, did not receive any calls regarding the seminar and does not plan any action, a spokeswoman said.

Despite the seminar’s cancellation, Jewish defense agencies reacted more with concern than satisfaction.

The ADL’s Greenspan, who was the point person in opposing the seminar, said that while she appreciated the general community’s reaction, she was bothered that the college board “still doesn’t see this racist seminar as their problem.”

She also warned that if and when the seminar is given under private auspices, it will lack public scrutiny and “bring the crazies out of the woodwork.”

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and an expert on racist and hate propaganda in cyberspace, added another perspective.

“The Mossad conspiracy theory may be laughable to us, but I can guarantee that, in a short time, it will become part of the folklore of hundreds of web sites on the Internet,” he said.

“For the Frogues and Pipers, the seminar cancellation is only a temporary setback. They got what they wanted by getting into the mainstream press. They don’t need to prove that Israelis had a hand in assassinating JFK; they just have to plant the seed of suspicion that it might have been that way.”

In assessing the role of the college district in authorizing the seminar, Cooper said: “The situation somewhat parallels the growing practice of the mainstream press to descend into tabloid journalism. What we’re getting here is a form of tabloid academia.”