Donna E. Arzt

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

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.

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.

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.

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.


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I knew Donna in elementary school. We were probably the only two Jewish girls. Wish I knew her as an adult.

I don't have any respect for this woman. She was a biased jewish activist who was mainly interested in looking for solutions of so called "jewish problemes" She never had any interest in solving problems caused by jews and when she did her proposals were of a pure racist nature. The book " Refugees into Citizens: Palestinians and the End of the Arab-Israeli Conflict" she wrote about a solution of the Palestian " problem " was utterly racist. In th elast 70 years there have been developed some 40 plans which in essence are all on the same with some minor variations. Each of these plans is based upon the notion that (a) the Palestinians are not a nation, but just a bunch of Arabs for whom it makes no difference to live somewhere else in the Arab world;(b) Palestine doesn't exist but only and exclusevely an Eretz Israel ( the land of Israel )(c) The Palestians are not entiteled to have the same rights on the land as the jewish Israelis do have; and(d) Israel – in a humanitarian gesture – can help these Palestinians to settle themselves somewhere. Needless to say that these are unadulterated racist ideas. In her book Arzt proposes a perhaps at first sight humanitarian plan to settle Palestinians all over the world, except in their homeland. In essence, Arzt's plan is to move 1.5 million people to various locations and force others to stay where they are today: in exile. (5) Many buses, trains and planes are required. It gives a sad view of the moral character of those who - more than any other people - should have learned lessons from past tragedies. In today's world, ethnic cleansing is a war crime. Forced resettlement as well. Under the Fourth Geneva Convention (1949) and the Rome Statute (1998), the establishment of people belonging to the occupying power in occupied territory is also a war crime. Expelling people from their homes is a war crime, as well as preventing them from returning there. Why should the Palestinians have different rules than refugees from Kosovo, East Timor, Kuwait and countless other places in the world that have been able to return home? Palestinian refugees have solid backing from international law. UN Resolution 194 (December 1948), which talks about the right of return, has been reconfirmed 135 times by the international community in the 52 years that have passed between 1948 and 2000. This is an inalienable right, to which any political agreement is subject and which cannot be limited, nor can it be negotiated by proxy or by any other means. The right of return is enshrined in Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of the Man (1948) and in the inviolability of private property, and cannot be undone by sovereignty, occupation or by time. It is clear that this woman has strange views on humanitarian law and that she propagates a clearly racist, privileged view despite her studies. In fact, it is a problem that many Jews (certainly not all) face. The idea that the historical suffering inflicted on Jews is unique and that it entitles them to impunity for all the crimes they commit in the international political arena and motivates the Jews to blame anyone who classifies it as a criminal of anti-Semitism. It is about time to judge the behavior of the state of Israel as that of any state, especially when its behavior leads to indescribable injustice for another people. I miss this observation, this assessment, in Donna Arzt her book and with that she disqualified herself.

What a kind, loving, generous person Donna was. She supported LGBT students at Syracuse University by acting as faculty advisor, supervised student papers on human rights, and encouraged people in every way she could. She had a strange obsession with cows, and used cows in jokes and in her classes. I remember spending an evening reading interesting legal materials and then trudging in the crisp snow to her classroom, where it all came together. I miss her.

Donna was my colleague at Syracuse Law School for all her time here. I write just to accentuate to readers how Donna's passion for truth and justice permeated all her work, not just that most public work which Stephen Whitfield's fine remembrance highlighted. Donna brought her deep-seated concern for students and their learning to all aspects of the work she and we do as educators at this University. Sometimes in the face of considerable reluctance on the part of most of her law colleagues, Donna pushed continuously and forcefully for what she understood to be in the best interests of the thousands of students who came through the law school while she was a professor and Director of the Global Law and Practice Center, which she was primarily responsible for founding here.

Amazingly, along with that passion and in the face of many frustrations here, Donna also brought as much laughter to this institution as anyone who has ever served here. She understood keenly the absurdity inherent in many situations -- even in some of the situations which were difficult for her personally -- and had a rare ability to laugh arm in arm with colleagues whom she had excoriated about a particular issue the week before.

This is a very good law school. However, it is a lesser place because Donna is no longer with us in person. We can hope and work to keep her with us in spirit.

A beautiful tribute to Donna Arzt by Steve Whitfield. Donna fulfilled so many accomplishments and contributions to the betterment of the world, that we, her parents, were not even aware of.


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How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Donna E. Arzt, 1954 - 2008." (Viewed on February 26, 2024) <>.