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Israel Zangwill Biography

Who was Israel Zangwill?

Israel Zangwill
Israel Zangwill

Israel Zangwill, one of the most popular Jews of his era, was one of the leaders to spearhead the Zionist movement. Along with his involvement in politics, his achievements in the field of English literature in forms of novels and plays are also well celebrated.

He devoted his skills to social movements against the oppression of the Jewish community, the cause of women’s suffrage, and territorialism.

Early Life of Israel Zangwill

Zangwill belonged to a family of Jewish Immigrants from the Russian Empire, his father Moses Zangwill from present-day Latvia and his mother Ellen was from present-day Poland. He was born on 21 January 1864, in London. His schooling began at Jews’ Free School in East London, a school founded for Jewish immigrant children.

This school provided him with secular as well as religious studies along with offering scholars with food, clothing and medical care. The school also presented him with the opportunity to study for his degree course at the University of London while becoming a teacher there. His intellect flourished and he graduated from University in 1884 with Triple honours.

Journalism and Writing of

Before his career in journalism, Zangwill tried his hand at writing. Unsure of his skills, he wrote under several pen-names such as J. Freeman Bell, Marshallik and Countess Von S. He also co-authored a story with Louis Cowen called ‘The Premier and the Painter’ and this is when he decided to put an end to his career in teaching and turn to journalism.

He edited multiple successful works such as ‘Ariel’ and ‘The London Puck’ with the London Press. The change in professions did not affect the writer in him for he continued to contribute to numerous Jewish and non-Jewish periodicals.

In the meantime, he rose to fame in 1892 for his novel ‘Children of the Ghetto’ followed by Ghetto Tragedies (1893 and 1899), Dreamers of the Ghetto (1898), and Ghetto Comedies (1907), and the ever-iconic novel, The King of Schnorrers (1894). As celebrated as he was, he continued to be vocal on socio-economic issues within the Jewish community and beyond.

Soon later, Zangwill found himself in the company of literary celebrities such as Solomon J. Solomon, Solomon Schechter, and the like through a club of Jewish intellectuals in London called ‘ Wanderers of Kilburn’.

His works introduced him to several eminent personalities in fields of art, theatre, and literature. He was enchanted by one such personality who was a writer and a feminist called Edith Ayrton and they got married in 1903.

Activism and Israel Zangwill

Zangwill became well known as a Zionist leader, pacifist, and social activist with his involvement in the suffrage movement of women. At the same time, he introduced a revolutionary philosophy through his plays – the idea of different ethnicities living in harmony and merging to become this one singular American nation.

One of his most widely popular plays first performed in 1908 ‘The Melting Pot’ explores this idea stating ‘America is God’s Crucible, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and reforming… Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians – into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American.’

The Melting Pot by Israel Zangwill
The Melting Pot

While Zangwill is known for his apt interpretations of Jewish immigrant life, his contribution to the community doesn’t end there. He founded an organization dedicated to rescuing and resettlement of Jews in other countries called the Jewish Territorial Organization (ITO).

The plans for resettlement did not come to fruition however the Organization carried out the Galveston Plan which brought around 10,000 immigrants to the United States over a period of seven years.

Later Life of Zangwill

In 1917, with the Balfour Declaration which was a statement by the British Government supporting Jewish settlement in Palestine, Zangwill took an active part in the  Zionist movement yet again however with the obstacles observed with the settlement and the impossibility thereof, he changed his tact and advocated territorialism.

Although this disappointed the Jewish community, he was always well respected and admired by all Jews around the world.

Soon later Zangwill’s physical and mental health began to decline and eventually died of pneumonia on August 1, 1926, at Oakhurst, a nursing home in Midhurst, West Sussex.