A member of the generation that came of age in the 1960s, Elizabeth Holtzman has pursued a public career epitomizing some of the most important trends in postwar American and Jewish life. In her successive roles as a congresswoman, Brooklyn district attorney, and comptroller of New York City, she emerged as an effective and activist public servant, a forceful campaigner, and a champion of liberal and feminist causes. Her career illustrates the recent empowerment of ambitious, highly motivated, professional young women and the increasing role of Jewish figures in electoral politics. In addition, she has been a dedicated Jew, with a highly regarded record of communal commitment and achievement.
Elizabeth Holtzman was born in Brooklyn on August 11, 1941, one of twin children, to Sidney Holtzman, a criminal lawyer, and Filia (Ravitz) Holtzman, a professor and former chair of the Russian department at Hunter College. Holtzman attended Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn and then earned her B.A. at Radcliffe College. She entered Harvard University Law School, receiving her degree in 1965. While a law student, she engaged in civil rights work in Georgia and was an organizing member of the Law Students Civil Rights Research Council, a national group.
Following a stint at the private New York law firm of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen, Katz and Kern, Holtzman served in Mayor John V. Lindsay’s administration as liaison to the New York Department of Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Affairs from 1968 to 1970. She then joined the law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison, and became active in local Democratic Party affairs.
In a dramatic political upset in 1972, she won the Democratic nomination as candidate representing Brooklyn’s Sixteenth Congressional District, beating the fifty-year incumbent, Emanuel Celler. Holtzman went on to defeat Celler, running as a Liberal candidate, at the polls that November, becoming at age thirty-two the youngest woman ever elected to the House of Representatives. For Brooklynites and New Yorkers, her victory signaled a changing of the guard, while at the same time symbolizing the ties that bound her to her heavily liberal, Jewish, and Democratic constituency.
As a member of the House Judiciary Committee, Holtzman took part in the famous Watergate hearings that investigated the links between the Nixon White House and the coverup of illegal activities. As chair of the House Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and International Law, she challenged the dismal record of the Immigration Service and the Justice Department in relation to former Nazi war criminals admitted to the United States after the war. She wrote and pushed through Congress the Holtzman Amendment, which authorized the deportation of such war criminals. Her verbal intervention also led to the establishment of a special investigation unit at the Justice Department. She also authored a rape privacy act, helped to extend the deadline for ratification of the then-proposed Equal Rights Amendment, and coauthored what became the country’s first refugee law.
In other spheres, Holtzman worked to increase public benefits for the aged and the poor, and to bar sex discrimination in federally funded employment programs.
In 1980, she ran for the United States Senate in a new bid to unseat another veteran liberal Jewish politician, New York Republican senator Jacob Javits. She won the Democratic nomination, but both she and Liberal candidate Javits lost in a controversial three-way contest against Alphonse D’Amato, the Republican candidate. In 1981, Holtzman won election as the district attorney for Kings County (Brooklyn), becoming the first woman D.A. in New York City. She left that office in 1990 to become comptroller of New York City, one of the three most important municipal offices (the other two being the mayor and the presidency of the city council). Her record in public administration included substantial savings and increases in the city’s pension funds, which were used to build low-cost housing and to expand employment opportunities. In addition, she improved women’s access to breast cancer screening and children’s immunization programs, and took pro-choice positions in the fierce political controversies that raged over abortion.
In 1982, she made another unsuccessful bid for the Senate in a rancorous campaign that pitted her against Geraldine Ferraro (the former Democratic vice presidential candidate on the Walter Mondale ticket). The following year, Holtzman failed to gain reelection to the comptroller’s office. She returned to private practice, joining the real estate firm of Herrick, Feinstein. She remained a member of the Helsinki Watch Committee and of the advisory board of the National Women’s Political Caucus.
As an eminent public figure, with both investigatory credentials and a proven commitment to Jewish affairs, Holtzman was named to the American Jewish Commission on the Holocaust. Chaired by former Supreme Court justice Arthur J. Goldberg, this group of dignitaries was convened under the initiative of Seymour Finger, a retired Foreign Service official. The commission’s task was to review a set of specially commissioned reports by historians and to evaluate American Jewish leadership during the Holocaust. The final report of the commission, called American Jewry During the Holocaust (1984), was sharply critical of the American Jewish leaders of that period. But Holtzman, in a thoughtful and perceptive dissenting statement, disputed the notion that the commission had succeeded in reaching a definitive evaluation of the American Jewish political response to the Holocaust. She preferred to draw an activist’s conclusion, calling for Jewish unity and “outspoken activism” in the face of threats to Jewish survival.
In 1999 President Clinton appointed Holtzman as one of three non-governmental members of the Interagency Working Group, an entity created under the Nazi War Criminal Disclosure Act, to declassify the U.S. government’s secret files on Nazi war criminals and those of the Japanese and other Axis allies. So far, more than eight million pages of previously classified material have been published.
For her work as a public servant and as an attorney, Holtzman has been honored by the National Council of Jewish Women; the Civil Liberties Unions of New York, New Jersey, and Los Angeles; the Young Women’s Christian Association; the Warsaw Ghetto Resistance Organization; the Brooklyn Coalition for Soviet Jewry; Radcliffe College; and many other organizations.
Who Said It Would Be Easy? New York: 1996; “Watergate and Abu Ghraib.” In In the Name of Democracy: American War Crimes in Iraq and Beyond, edited by Jeremy Brecher, Jill Carter and Brendan Smith. New York: 2005.
Finger, Seymour, ed. American Jewry During the Holocaust (1984); Polner, Murray, ed. American Jewish Biographies (1982); Who’s Who in America; Who’s Who in American Politics, 1979–1980.