Israel Zangwill: Zionism

Although he wrote extensively about religion, Zangwill never put together a coherent theology. He rejected both orthodox Judaism and organized Christianity. He advocated a "new religion," based on a synthesis of what he saw as the best aspects of each -- a peaceful, universal brotherhood of reason and love, of charity and equality that focused on the present not the past or hereafter.

Zionism is a broad term referring primarily to the return of Jews to Palestine. The modern Zionist movement was founded in 1897 with the goal of establishing a home for the Jewish people within the ancient territory of Israel and Judea. Prior to this various groups had sponsored emigration to Palestine, but without centralized organization or direction.

In 1862 Moses Hess published a book in which he advocated a Jewish nationalist movement. Leon Pinsker in an 1882 pamphlet argued that the way for Jews to avoid anti-Semitism was to establish their own country (which did not have to be in Palestine).

In 1896 Theodor Herzl published Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State). Like Pinsker (whom he hadn't read) he advocated the creation of a Jewish state somewhere (not necessarily in Palestine).

The year before Herzl had visited Zangwill at his home in England to solicit his support. At that time Zangwill was a popular writer who had published several books about Jewish ghetto life. He was aware of the idea of Jewish nationalism before he met Herzl. In Children of the Ghetto (1892) there is a chapter about the "Holy Land League," a fictional East-End organization that starts a fund to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem and to send small parties of poor, persecuted Jews to Palestine.

Zangwill had rejected orthodox Judaism and believed that a kind of universal religion, a brotherhood based on the incorporation of the best of Judaism and Christianity could someday be achieved. He felt that a modern Jewish state would serve as an example to the world. He also recognized the need for a refuge for oppressed Jews, especially the victims of the Russian pogroms.

Herzl's view was that Jews and Christians could never live together in peace and, therefore, the Jews needed their own country. Neither believed that a homeland for Jews had to be established in Palestine, although both recognized its symbolic value. In Zangwill's story "Noah's Ark," (Ghetto Tragedies, 1893) Peloni ("nobody") travels to New York state to help establish a refuge for Jews from all over the world set up by an American, Mordecai Manuel Noah. No Jews come and Noah abandons New York for Palestine.

Zangwill committed himself to the international Zionist movement, became Herzl's trusted adviser in England and, thereafter, wrote mostly didactic plays and non-fiction.

Herzl founded the Zionist Organization and the First Zionist Congress was held in Basel, Switzerland in 1897.1 The Congress called for the legal establishment of a home for the Jewish people in Palestine. Attempts to gain a charter for the establishment of the Jewish state in Palestine (part of the Ottoman Empire) failed. Herzl approached the British about establishing a Jewish colony in one of its territories and Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain offered a region in East Africa.

At the Sixth Zionist Congress in 1903 Herzl presented Chamberlain's offer (called the Uganda Plan). Zangwill spoke in favor of it as a temporary solution to the need to extract Jews from Russia where terrible pogroms had and continued to occur. Despite strong opposition by those who would accept only Palestine, the plan was accepted and a commission was sent to Uganda to determine its suitableness.

At the Seventh Zionist Congress in 1905 Zangwill, Herzl and others continued to argue that a temporary refuge needed to be established immediately somewhere (anywhere), but opposition to the Uganda Plan had increased and it was rejected.

Zangwill, Lucien Wolf and others felt that a Jewish homeland did not have to be located in Palestine and that there was an urgent need to establish a (possibly temporary) place of refuge. They split with the Zionist Organization and formed the Jewish Territorial Organization (ITO) with Zangwill assuming the presidency.

The ITO studied various locations in Africa, Australia, Asia and Canada but none were suitable. Between 1907 and 1912 five thousand immigrants were sent to Galveston, Texas in the United States and then relocated to other places in the Western part of the country. The ITO dissolved in 1925 due to lack of funding and defection by members back to the Zionist Organization.

In 1917 in a letter to Baron Rothschild (a leader of the British Jewish Community) from Foreign Secretary Balfour said the "government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object." This is referred to as the Balfour Declaration.

Following World War 1, Palestine came under British control. In 1922 the League of Nations gave Britain a mandate to develop a Jewish national home in Palestine. Faced with strong Arab opposition the British procrastinated, issued several White papers and limited Jewish immigration. On November 29, 1947, the United Nations voted to end the British mandate and to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. The plan was accepted by most Zionists but rejected by the Arab world. The state of Israel was established on May 14, 1948.

For the second half of his life (30 years) Zangwill worked for the establishment of a Jewish homeland. Paradoxically, at the same time he called for tolerance and assimilation. In his play The Melting Pot he tried to made the case that the United States was the place where the Judeo-Christian ideal of universal brotherhood could be realized.

See also

Israel Zangwill and Zangwill's Zones


1"Dreamers in Congress," a chapter in Dreamers of the Ghetto (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1898) 430-438, describes the 1897 Congress.