Israel Zangwill was born on 21st January 1864 on Ebenezer Street in London’s East End. He received his early schooling in Plymouth and Bristol but his parents (Jews from the Russian empire) moved back to Spitalfields. From the age of 9, he was educated at the Jews’ Free School in London which still exists today.
As a young adult he also taught at the Jews’ Free School whilst earning a BA with triple honours at the University of London in 1884. He read English, French and Mental Moral Science. After graduating he became a Journalist and Writer.
Whilst initially becoming a teacher, Israel turned to writing. The Bachelors’ Club was published in 1891. Short stories appeared in magazines including the Idler. He was editor of the Puck Magazine, but that folded in 1892. In 1892 Children of the Ghetto was published. Other titles include Ghetto Tragedies (1893), The King of Schnorrers: Grotesques and fantasies (1894) and Dreamers of the Ghetto (1898) and the play The Melting Pot (1909).
In addition to his novels he translated the Hebrew liturgy into English, wrote poetry and twenty dramas (many were adaptations of his novels). In the December 1916 issue of Scribble, Zangwill wrote On the Death of a Neighbour. In the prose he explains how he feels desensitized to the mass scale of the war atrocity but feels a far greater empathy with the homely more local plight of his neighbour instead.
Israel married Edith Ayrton (also chronicled on this site) in 1903 and they went on to have three children with Edith: George (born 1906), who became an engineer and worked in Mexico, Margaret (1910), who suffered from a mental condition and was institutionalized and Oliver (1913), who became professor of experimental psychology at the University of Cambridge. They lived in East Preston, West Sussex in a house called Far End.
In 1907 He declared himself a supporter of militant tactics of the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union). In the same year Israel Zangwill and 32 others formed the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage. In November 1912 Israel and his wife Edith helped establish the Jewish League for Women’s Suffrage. He increasingly disapproved of the violent tactics and lack of democracy in the WSPU and in February 1914 helped build the non-militant and United Suffragists.
Israel Zangwill had a long and complex role in various forms of Zionism. His biographer, Udelson, has argued “From 1901 to 1905 (Zangwill) was an advocate of official Herzlian Zionism; from 1905 to 1914 he was the driving force behind insurgent Territorialism; and from 1914 to 1919 he was the leading Western advocate of a Palestine-centred Jewish nationalism”.
“From as early as 1895, Israel Zangwill was linked with the Zionism of Theodor Herzl. However, he split with Herzl and set up the ‘Jewish Territorial Organization for the Settlement of the Jews Within the British Empire, of which he was President from 1905–25. The organization sought to establish a Jewish homeland anywhere where land was available including in Palestine, East Africa and Canada.”
The Jewish Virtual Library write “Zangwill’s greatest 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.”
Zangwill’s biographer, Joseph H Udelson, says that his physical and mental health declined within two months of his retirement. He had insomnia and anxiety, this was not helped by his always fragile physical constitution.
Israel Zangwill died of pneumonia aged 62 on 1st August 1926 at Oakhurst Nursing Home in Midhurst, West Sussex.
There is a blue plaque celebrating both the lives of Edith Ayrton and Israel Zangwill on the front of their home at Far End, East Preston, West Sussex.