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Donna E. Arzt

Human Rights Lawyer, Teacher
1954 – 2008
by Stephen J. Whitfield

Recalling her undergraduate career at Barnard College, where she studied anthropology with the great anti-racist scholar Franz Boas, Margaret Mead remembered vigorous arguments over "whether or not Jews had a 'chromosome' for social justice." Mead never met Donna Arzt. But in her a genetic disposition to the appeal of tikkun olam was evident, in the course of a life devoted to deploying the law in behalf of progressive causes of special concern to the Jewish people. Upon her death at the age of 53, Donna served as professor at Syracuse University College of Law, and could look back upon three decades of activism, especially on behalf of the right of Jews to emigrate from the Soviet Union.

Donna E. Arzt with Her Family in Maine
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Donna Arzt with family, on vacation in Maine.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Alvin Arzt.

Born and raised in suburban Philadelphia, Donna received her bachelor's degree summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Brandeis University, and then her J. D. from Harvard Law School. She also received her LL. M. in comparative constitutional law from Columbia University School of Law, and was admitted to practice in Massachusetts and in New York, where she began her academic career in 1988. (At her death flags on the Syracuse University campus were lowered to half-mast.) In 1979 Donna created the position ex nihilo of Director and General Counsel of the Soviet Jewry Legal Advocacy Center. She served in that position for a full decade, during which the human rights crisis that the Soviet regime had created and aggravated was added to the international agenda. Donna was a pivotal figure in driving the momentum and sustaining the struggle of American Jews and their allies to highlight the plight of the refuseniks, as the rigidity of the Brezhnev era eventually yielded to the glasnost of his reformist successor, Mikhail Gorbachev. That political sequence made possible the vindication of the right of free movement from one nation to another, for the sake of fulfillment of free cultural and religious expression as well as the enhancement of individual autonomy. Through her legal resourcefulness, her articulateness and her tireless resoluteness, Donna was among the most effective American activists to bring the mistreatment of the Jewish minority in the U.S.S.R. to extinction.

Donna E. Arzt Celebrating Her Birthday with Faculty Friends
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Donna E. Arzt celebrating her birthday at home with law school faculty friends.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Alvin Arzt.

Once Jews could emigrate, and once the Soviet Union itself was consigned to the dustbin of history, Donna turned her energies to other issues of human (and especially Jewish) rights. From 1993 until 1996, she served as project director of "The Shape of the Palestinian/Israeli Settlement: Demographic and Humanitarian Issues" for the Council of Foreign Relations. That prospective settlement eluded even her. She nevertheless envisioned a much larger framework within which the role of law could be affirmed. In 1988 she had founded and also directed the Center for Global Law and Practice at Syracuse. The aim of the Center was to promote the study and the appreciation of international and comparative law, subjects that she taught not only at the law school but also at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.

Perhaps her most imaginative and conspicuous project was to initiate an organization to offer moral and legal support to the families of the victims of the Libyan terrorist bombing of Pan Am flight #103, which crashed at and near Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988. (Three dozen Syracuse University students were among the passengers killed in the explosion.) Working under a grant from the U. S. Department of Justice, the Lockerbie Trial-Families Project kept families informed of the legal developments and criminal proceedings in the case, and reminded the world of the horrific human consequences of such terrorism. Donna also served as co-director of the Sierra Leone Project to confront the war crimes that had been perpetrated in the course of the civil war that had lasted there for a decade.

A consultant to Human Rights Watch and to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Donna Arzt did not, in the service of her professional and civic ideals, abandon her loyalties and responsibilities to her friends, her family, and her students. Her final years had to be spent enduring terrible pain and shrunken mobility--for genes can truly be a curse (whatever the plausibility of an inherent Jewish proclivity for social justice). But Donna Arzt's gallant spirit and her keen sense of humor were inextricable to her personality, and remained intact.

Donna E. Arzt
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Human rights lawyer and teacher Donna E. Arzt (1954 – 2008) in a cap from the Drug Enforcement Agency, which shared her initials.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Alvin Arzt.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Donna E. Arzt, 1954 - 2008." (Viewed on January 22, 2017) <>.

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