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November 29, 1985 - Image 14

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1985-11-29

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Friday, November 29, 1985 THE DETROIT JEWISH NEWS

Nat Hentoff has a knack for drawing fire
from all sides. Right-wingers pillory him
for his absolutist stand on civil liberties.
Liberals castigate him for his opposition
to abortion. Mainstream American Jews
trot out their handy carard of "self-hating
Jew" at the mention of his name.
Hentoff — weekly columnist for New
York's Village Voice and a staff member
of The Progressive and The New Yorker
— is a rarity: A liberal who is willing to
offend former allies, to call them hypo-
critical or nonsensical. He is scrupulous
enough to question elementary liberal
tenets, no matter where that may lead
him. And he is ever eager to go to battle
for the Bill of Rights, the cornerstone, as
he sees it, of what makes the U.S. the U.S.
Hentoff's knees do not jerk, at least
politically. He has carved out a niche for
himself that could, presumably, be called
"Hentoffian." In an interview, Hentoff,
hero to many political activists in the
1960's, said he was appalled at that
generation's lack of discipline, lack of
knowledge and lack of lasting contribu-
tions to American society.
Calling himself a "nuclear pacifist," he
said he would be willing to use his fists to
defend himself. ("I think we should
unilaterally disarm ourselves of our
nuclear weapons before some yo-yo blows
us all up," he said, "but, sure,I would hit
you if you struck me.") A life-long Zionist,
he agonized over Israel's recent course. A
jazz buff who is cozy with many black
leaders, he was "disgusted" at prominent
blacks' "pussy footing around" over the
anti-Semitic ravings of Black Muslim
minister Louis Farrakhan. And while con-
temptuous of the racist teachings of Meir
Kahane, he still considered him a
"valuable intellectual force. The man is not
a nut."
Hentoff has been the target for some
fairly serious death threats, some occas-
sional ostracism by other liberals, and
much head-shaking all the way from the
Radical Right to the Neo-Right to the
Comfortable Middle to the Moribund Left.
And yet, and yet . . . Hentoff keeps on
writing and holding his own ground. He
has, he says, "not regretted a word yet."
Not unlike another journalist, H.L. Men-
cken, but perhaps a bit kinder, Hentoff has

And The

Nat Hentoff, fearless
columnist for The Village
Voice and former jazz critic,
sounds off on a variety of
topics, including American
Jewry, Louis Farrakhan,
Meir Kahane and social

Special to The Jewish News

railed against most everything under the
American sun. The quietest and most
reasonable of men in person, Hentoff saves
his greatest wrath for "liberals who are
just as bad as the right-wingers to whom
they feel so superior. Liberals say they are
for freedom of expression. But you get peo-
ple like the head of a philanthropy who pull
their funding from the The Progresive
magazine because it ran a tiny ad from a
group that was for pacifists, anti-nuke —
and was pro-life. Or you get feminists who
want to exempt pornography from the
First Amendment."
Much of Hentoff's journalism centers
around the First Amendment and the
other nine planks of the Bill of Rights.
These ten amendments are Hentoff's Bi-
ble. In a sense, they may be his only Bi-
ble. He includes himself in "the very
strong and very honorable tradition of
Jewish atheism. If somebody would say to
me, 'Who are you?,' I don't know which
would come first — 'Writer' or 'Jew' . "
Hentoff does know that much of his
social consciousness was sculpted by an-
cient Jewish ethics. "Social justice seem-
ed to be a Jewish concept," he said. "I
heard about it from my father, who
organized a painter's union in Boston. I
heard about it from my uncles. To be a
mensch, it seemed, you had to be decent
and just to people. Its as natural as
At first, though, it was not entirely
natural to Hentoff. In elementary school
in the 1930's, Hentoff, like most other
children of that era and in that age range,
"never thought we had any liberties at all.
We were primarily a Jewish student body
in a school run by Irish Catholics. When
it came to singing 'Jesus Is Our Saviour,'
we joined in — or else."
At the high school he attended, Boston
Latin, one of the oldest in the country,
Hentoff can't recall any church-state con-
flicts. "They just ignored the church."
This was despite Boston Latin's influence
in helping to shape one of the most for-
midable fire-and-brimstone preachers in
colonial America — Cotton Mather.
Life changed for Hentoff when he went
to Northeastern University. "I had a lot
of trouble as editor of the college
newspaper," he said. "I was running a lot

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