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Israel Zangwill

Israel Zangwill (1894-1926) was a British humourist.

Short biography

He is born in London, and comes from a family of Jewish immigrants. His mother was from Poland and his father from Latvia, both part of Russia at the time. During his entire life, Zangwill championed the rights of the Jews, fought for women's emancipation and espoused the Zionist cause. He was schooled in Plymouth and Bristol, then enrolled in a Jewish school in East London at which he excelled. He graduated from the University of London in 1884.

Zangwill was known as the Dickens of the Ghetto. He owes his nickname to the numerous works he's written pleading for the Jewish cause. In 1892 he wrote a famous novel called “Children of the ghetto: a study of a peculiar people”. He will write numerous accounts of life in the Jewish community with “Ghetto tragedies” and “Ghetto comedies”. He became famous in the United States in 1909 with his play “The melting pot”, which helped popularise the expression. In this melodramatic story, Zangwill argues for an ideal world where barriers of race and religion have fallen. So, contrarily to some modern opinions entertained about Zionism, Zangwill was a Zionist who wanted a world without distinctions of race and religion. Fighting for the cause of Zionism and advocating a better world through works such as “The melting pot” stemmed from the same profound urge: to put an end to oppression.

Zangwill managed to introduce some Yiddish sentence structures in English literature, making his style quite unique. Zangwill was a prolific and multifaceted author: he wrote a crime novel, The Big Bow mystery, a satire called “The king of Schnorrers”, and essays on Spinoza, Lassalle...

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Zionism and territorialism

Zangwill was a Zionist and later a territorialist. At the end of the growth of the Zionist movement started by Herzl, there was a lot of discussion in most European capitals about the possibility for Jews to migrate to a land of their own. In 1901, Zangwill writes that “Palestine is a country without a people, the Jews are a people without a country.” Then later on, he went on to say: ”we can make the wilderness blossom as the rose, and build up in the heart of the world a civilisation that may be a mediator and interpreter between the East and the West.”

In 1905, Zangwill changes his mind and adopts the other cause, the territorialist one. The same year he founds the “Jewish territorialist organisation” and breaks with Herzl and the Zionist movement. He explains his change of mind by arguing he had been naïve and had underestimated the size of the people in this “country without a people”. Confronted with a choice of either having the Jews live alongside a larger Arab population or driving them out, he chose another option: recommend migration to another territory, even if this territory is not Israel. This is the breaking point between Zionism and Territorialism. From 1913, after having been called a traitor for abandoning the Zionist hope of the Jews re-inhabiting Israel, he defended his position, arguing again that a country with two peoples would not work: “This can only cause trouble. The Jews will suffer and so will their neighbours. One of the two: a different place must be found either for the Jews or for their neighbours.” Over his life, Zangwill tried to locate a homeland in many parts of the world: Uganda (most talked about at the time), Canada, Australia, Asia... The “Jewish Territorialist organisation” is dissolved in 1925. Zangwill dies in 1926.

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