January 21, 1864, London, England.
August 1, 1926, Midhurst, West Sussex, England.
Zangwill’s parents were Jewish immigrants from czarist Russia: Moses Zangwill from what is now Latvia, and Ellen Hannah Marks Zangwill from what is now Poland. Israel dedicated his life to championing the cause of the oppressed. Jewish emancipation, women’s suffrage, assimilationism, territorialism and Zionism were all fertile fields for his pen. His brother was also a writer, the novelist Louis Zangwill, and his son was the prominent British psychologist, Oliver Zangwill.
Zangwill received his early schooling in Plymouth and Bristol. When he was nine years old, he was enrolled in the Jews’ Free School in Spitalfields in east London, a school for Jewish immigrant children. The school offered a strict course of both secular and religious studies while supplying clothing, food, and health care for the students; today one of its four houses is named Zangwill in his honor. At this school, Zangwill excelled, and even taught part-time, moving up to become a full-fledged teacher. While teaching, he studied for his degree, earning a BA with triple honors in 1884 from the University of London.
In later life, Zangwill’s friends included well known Victorian writers such as Jerome K. Jerome and H. G. Wells.
Zangwill wrote a very influential novel, Children of the Ghetto: A Study of a Peculiar People (1892). The use of the phrase
melting pot to describe American absorption of immigrants was popularized by Zangwill’s play The Melting Pot, a hit in America in 1909–10.
When The Melting Pot opened in Washington, DC, on October 5, 1909, former President Theodore Roosevelt leaned over the edge of his box and shouted,
That’s a great play, Mr. Zangwill, that’s a great play. In 1912 Zangwill received a letter from Roosevelt in which Roosevelt wrote of The Melting Pot as
That particular play I shall always count among the very strong and real influences upon my thought and my life. The hero of the play, David, emigrates to America in the wake of the Kishinev pogrom in which his entire family is killed. He writes a great symphony called The Crucible expressing his hope for a world in which all ethnicity has melted away. He falls in love with a beautiful Russian Christian immigrant named Vera. The dramatic peak of the play is the moment when David meets Vera’s father, who turns out to be the Russian officer responsible for the annihilation of David’s family. Vera’s father admits his guilt, the symphony is performed to accolades, and David and Vera live happily ever after. Or, at least they agree to wed and kiss as the curtain falls.
Zangwill wrote many other plays, including Children of the Ghetto (1899), a dramatization of his novel, directed on Broadway by James A. Herne, and starring Blanche Bates, Ada Dwyer, and Wilton Lackaye; Merely Mary Ann (1903) and Nurse Marjorie (1906), both directed by Charles Cartwright and starring Eleanor Robson. Daniel Frohman produced Zangwill’s 1904 The Serio-Comic Governess, featuring Cecilia Loftus, Kate Pattison-Selten, and Julia Dean. In 1931, Jules Furthman adapted Merely Mary Ann for a Janet Gaynor film.
Zangwill’s simulation of Yiddish sentence structure in English aroused great interest. He also wrote mysteries, such as The Big Bow Mystery, and social satire such as The King of Schnorrers (1894), a picaresque novel (later a short-lived musical comedy in 1979). His Dreamers of the Ghetto (1898) includes essays on famous Jews such as Baruch Spinoza, Heinrich Heine and Ferdinand Lassalle. The Big Bow Mystery was the first locked room murder novel. It has been almost continuously in print since 1891, and has been used as the basis for three commercial films. Another widely produced play was The Lens Grinder, based on the life of Baruch Spinoza.
In politics, Zangwill supported the feminist and pacifist movements. He was also involved in Jewish issues as an assimilationist, an early Zionist, and a territorialist. Zangwill left the Zionist movement in 1905 to lead the Territorialist movement, advocating a Jewish homeland in whatever piece of land might be available. Zangwill is incorrectly known for coining the slogan
A land without a people for a people without a land, describing Zionist aspirations in the Biblical land of Israel. What Zangwill actually wrote, in the New Liberal Review in December, 1901, was
Palestine is a country without a people; the Jews are a people without a country.
Zangwill, who had visited Palestine, knew that it did contain a population, though a fairly small one. What he meant by calling it a land without
a people is that there was at that time no ethnic group identifying itself as any particular national group and that it was underpopulated, as most travelers at the time agreed. The people then living in Palestine under the Ottoman Empire thought of themselves as Arab, Greek, Circassian, and so forth. Those identifying as Arabs identified with their cities, villages or tribe, or with the wider region of Syria, Bilad al-Sham, encompassing what are now Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories. Zangwill, however, did not invent the phrase; he acknowledged borrowing it from Lord Shaftesbury.
During the lead-up to the Crimean War in 1854, which signaled an opening for realignments in the Near East in July 1853, Shaftesbury wrote to Foreign Minister Aberdeen that Greater Syria was
a country without a nation in need of
a nation without a country…Is there such a thing? To be sure there is, the ancient and rightful lords of the soil, the Jews! In his diary that year he wrote,
these vast and fertile regions will soon be without a ruler, without a known and acknowledged power to claim dominion. The territory must be assigned to some one or other…There is a country without a nation; and God now in his wisdom and mercy, directs us to a nation without a country.
After having for a time supported Theodor Herzl, including presiding over a meeting at the Maccabean Club in London, addressed by Herzl on November 24, 1895, and supporting the main Palestine-oriented Zionist movement, Zangwill broke away from the established movement and founded his own organization, called the Jewish Territorialist Organization in 1905. Its aim was to create a Jewish homeland in whatever territory in the world could be found (not necessarily in what today is the state of Israel). Zangwill died after trying to create a Jewish state in such diverse places as Canada, Australia, Mesopotamia, Uganda and Cyrenaica.