From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Born to a Russian émigré who had escaped persecution and death in a Czarist military prison, he dedicated his life to championing the cause of the oppressed. Jewish emancipation, women's suffrage and Zionism (understood as a national liberation movement) were all fertile fields for his pen.
Zangwill received his early schooling in Plymouth and Bristol. When nine years old he was enrolled in the Jews' Free School in Spitalfields, a private school for Jewish immigrant children. The school offered a strict course of secular and Jewish studies while supplying clothing, food, and health care for the scholars. At this school young Israel excelled and taught part-time, finally becoming a full-fledged teacher. While teaching, he studied for his degree in 1884 from London University, earning a BA with triple honours.
In later life, his friends included Jerome K. Jerome and H. G. Wells. He wrote a very influential novel Children of the Ghetto: A Study of a Peculiar People (1892). The use of the metophorical phrase melting pot to describe American absorption of immigrants was popularised by Zangwill's play The Melting Pot, a hit in the USA in 1908 – 1909. The latter received its most recent production at New York's Metropolitan Playhouse, March 2006. His simulation of Yiddish sentence structure in English aroused great interest. He also wrote mystery works, such as The Big Bow Mystery, and social satire such as The King of Schnorrers (1894), a picaresque novel. His Dreamers of the Ghetto (1898) includes essays on famous Jews such as Spinoza, Heinrich Heine and Ferdinand Lassalle. Jules Furthman adapted one of his plays for the 1931 Janet Gaynor film Merely Mary Ann, about an orphan and a composer.
Zangwill is known for coining the slogan "A land without a people for a people without a land" describing Zionist aspirations in the Land of Israel. (However, he did not invent the phrase: in its original form "A country without a nation for a nation without a country" it is attributed to Lord Shaftesbury. The lead-up to the Crimean War (1854) signaled an opening for realignments in the Near East. In July of 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.”) <ref>Shaftsbury as cited in Hyamson, Albert, “British Projects for the Restoration of Jews to Palestine,” American Jewish Historical Society, Publications 26, 1918 p. 140; and in Garfinkle, Adam M., “On the Origin, Meaning, Use and Abuse of a Phrase.” Middle Eastern Studies, London, Oct. 1991, vol. 27). See also Mideast Web: British Support for Jewish Restoration</ref>
After first having supported Theodor Herzl and Zionism, Zangwill, a British Jew, broke up with the movement and founded his own organization, called the Jewish Territorialist Organization in 1905, the aim of which was to create a Jewish homeland in whatever possible territory in the world (and not necessarily in what today is the state of Israel). Zangwill died in 1926 in Midhurst, West Sussex after trying to create the Jewish state in such diverse places as Canada, Australia, Mesopotamia, Uganda and Cyrenaica.
One of the four houses at Jews' Free School is named Zangwill in his honour.
Israel Zangwill is featured as a recurring character in the novels of Will Thomas.