Israel Zangwill, Anglo-Jewish writer and political activist, was probably the best known Jew in the English-speaking world at the start of the twentieth century.
Zangwill was born in London on January 21, 1864 to parents who had immigrated from Eastern Europe. For part of his childhood the family lived in Plymouth and Bristol, but they eventually settled in London’s East End where Zangwill attended and then taught in the Jews’ Free School. Zangwill graduated from the University of London in 1884 with honors in English, French, and Mental and Moral Science.
Zangwill began his career as a journalist and humor writer, contributing to Jerome K. Jerome’s periodical The Idler as well as Jewish periodicals. His novel Children of the Ghetto, first published in 1892, made him a literary celebrity. It was followed by the collections Ghetto Tragedies (1893 and 1899), Dreamers of the Ghetto (1898), and Ghetto Comedies (1907), and the comic novel The King of Schnorrers (1894), as well as several novels and many stories not specifically on Jewish themes. Throughout the 1890s, too, Zangwill was a literary and social critic for British and American magazines and a frequent writer and speaker on Jewish issues. He was a member of “wanderers of Kilburn,” a group of London Jewish intellectuals that also included Solomon Schechter, Joseph Jacobs, and Solomon J. Solomon, among others. This group later formed the core of the Maccabaeans and the Jewish Historical Society of England. Zangwill’s friends throughout his life included many prominent men and women in the arts, literature, and theater. In 1903, he married Edith Ayrton, a writer and feminist.
In the twentieth century, Israel Zangwill turned to drama and to direct involvement in the social movements of his day. He also participated in a translation of the Mahzor with Arthur Davis, Nina Davis Salaman, and others, and published a translation of the religious poetry of Solomon Ibn Gabirol (1923). Of his many plays on social mores and the world situation, his most enduring has been The Melting Pot, first performed in 1908.
Zangwill was also an activist in the Zionist, pacifist, and women’s suffrage movements of the early twentieth century. He was not an absolute pacifist, however, nor was he, in the end, a mainstream Zionist, although he had introduced Theodor Herzl to potential supporters among Anglo-Jewry in 1895 and was a leading British Zionist until Herzl’s death. In 1905, believing that the need to rescue Jews was urgent and knowing that Herzl himself had explored sites other than Palestine for a Jewish homeland, Zangwill formed the Jewish Territorial Organization (the ITO), the goal of which was to establish a homeland for the Jews wherever one could be found. The ITO considered territories in north and east Africa, Australia, Mexico, Canada, and elsewhere, but none were, in the end, viable options. Zangwill’s greatest ITO success was in working with Jacob Schiff on the Galveston Plan, which brought 10,000 immigrants to the United States between 1907 and 1914.
Around the time of the Balfour Declaration, in 1917, Zangwill returned to the Zionist fold, but warned that the Jews needed a homeland with autonomy, not simply a place of refuge under British or other rule. Seeing the Arab presence in Palestine as an insuperable obstacle, and recognizing that Arab resettlement could not be done peacefully or practically, Zangwill ultimately continued to advocate territorialism and in 1923 alienated many Jews when, in an address to 4,000 at Carnegie Hall, he criticized the Zionist leadership and declared “political Zionism is dead.”
Still, when Israel Zangwill died on August 1, 1926, near his home in East Preston, Sussex, the Jewish world mourned the loss of a prominent literary interpreter, defender, and public figure.
Sources: Meri-Jane Rochelson, Professor of English, Florida International University