Israel Zangwill

The Jewish author and philosopher Israel Zangwill (1864-1926) was an influential leader of English Jewry and a Zionist activist.

Israel Zangwill was born in London. His family, Russian Jews, lived in London's east side in the Jewish quarter of White-chapel. After receiving both an English and a Jewish education, he studied philosophy, history, and the sciences at the University of London. At the same time he taught at the Free Jewish School of London. Having left teaching for a career in journalism, he generated much popular interest as a writer and a literary editor. Even in his first articles he showed a keen sensitivity to tragic and comic themes alike and succeeded in combining powers of realistic description with a fertile imagination.

Zangwill's Children of the Ghetto was published in 1892. The work had considerable impact in the non-Jewish world, giving the English reader a jarring glimpse of the poverty-stricken life of London's Jewish quarter. His success encouraged him both to continue his literary work and to deal with the themes of ghetto life. Thus he published Ghetto Tragedies in 1894 and Dreams of the Ghetto in 1898. His stories and novels are not merely peopled with Jewish characters but are permeated by a sense of the Jewish life-style and its values. It is in this pervading quality that the uniqueness of Zangwill's contribution to English literature lies.

Zangwill's productivity ranged over many literary genres. He wrote a number of unsuccessful plays. In 1908 he published a volume of poetry, Blind Children, followed by another, Italian Phantasies, in 1910. He translated into English a selection of religious poetry by the Jewish medieval poet Solomon in Cabirol, which he published in Selected Religious Poems (1903).

In the early 1890s Zangwill had joined the Lovers of Zion movement in England. In 1897 he participated in the "pilgrimage" of English Jews to Palestine. That year he also joined Theodor Herzl in founding the World Zionist Organization and later took part in the first seven Zionist congresses. Zangwill was renowned as an orator, and his impassioned speeches made deep impressions upon the delegates to the Zionist congress. He advocated the plan for Jewish settlement in Uganda, and after this plan was rejected by the Seventh Zionist Congress (1905), he with Max Mandelstamm, founded the Jewish Territorial Organization. This organization investigated sites for the establishment of a Jewish nation in Canada, Argentina, Australia, and Africa.

When the prospects of Jewish settlement in Palestine became more clearly defined at the end of World War I, Zangwill returned to the Zionist effort and took active part in soliciting the Balfour Declaration, proclaiming the right of a Jewish national homeland in Palestine.

Further Reading on Israel Zangwill

The most complete study of Zangwill in English is Maurice Wohlgelernter, Israel Zangwill: A Study (1964). Other biographies are Harry Schneiderman's short and laudatory Israel Zangwill (1928) and Joseph Leftwich's largely anecdotal Israel Zangwill (1957).

Additional Biography Sources

Udelson, Joseph H., Dreamer of the ghetto: the life and works of Israel Zangwill, Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1990.