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The Tragic Lesson of Israel Zangwill by Professor. Yoseph Udelson
The Tragic Lesson of Israel Zangwill by Professor. Yoseph Udelson

Volume 3 , Issue 5

Israel Zangwill (1864‑1926) was the first internationally acclaimed Jewish novelist to write in English. Throughout his long, often flamboyant career as author, lecturer, and Zionist, he sought to identify the fundamental justification and purpose for remaining Jewish within a modern Western, secular society. However, in his 1898 collection of fictionalized historical biographies, Dreamers of the Ghetto, he repeatedly cautioned that every attempt by a Jew to bridge what he perceived as the chasm separating his people from their non‑Jewish neighbors must inevitably result in alienation, ostracism, suicide, or execution. Yet within three years of the appearance of the book, Zangwill himself had eschewed his novelistic career in order to dedicate his public and private life to defining modern Judaism theoretically and to embodying this Judaism spiritually and physically within the essential currents of non‑Jewish Western culture. In the course of pursuing this quest over the following two decades, he succeeded only in alienating his literary audience, estranging his Jewish friends, and having himself ejected from the Zionist movement. None of his ideological formulations won the slightest acceptance, and every attempt at a practical endeavor ended in unmitigated failure. By 1926 Zangwill's fierce search for the meaning of Judaism, like those of his fictional dreamers, finally imploded into a mental and physical collapse from which he never recovered. Zangwill died still unable to grasp what Jewish identity means or what it entails.

Still perplexing many contemporary Jews is precisely Zangwill's lifelong quandary: the definition and meaning of their identity as Jews living in free secular Western societies. Discussion of the problem is complicated by the fact that this identity is itself experienced from two distinct, although intertwined, perspectives, one intrinsic and one extrinsic. The internal perspective concentrates on defining Jewish identity with respect to one's relationships with other Jews while the external perspective focuses on experiencing one's Jewishness in relation to one's ?other?, non‑Jewish, but apparently parallel, identity.

How is Judaism Defined?

Discussions of the intrinsic perspective generally revolve around the issue of how ?Judaism? comes to be defined. Is it something religious and/or cultural and/or national and/or merely a happenstance of one's birth? Since even in the last instance, one's Jewish identity remains at issue, however one might regret it, various limitations, combinations, and permutations of the first three categories ‑ religious, cultural, national ‑ remain. After all, most of us know at least a few persons whose identity as a Jew encompasses all three categories, although spanning a kaleidoscopic variety of configurations and emphases. On the other hand, some Jews prefer to limit their notion of ?Judaism? to only one category; for instance, that it refers only to a set of religious beliefs and practices, or only to some particular shared historical experiences, or only to some distinctive anthropological heritage. However, most Jews, at least tacitly, subscribe to a combination of categories when defining ?Judaism;? for instance, that Jewishness involves certain religious and cultural values or that it includes a distinctive cultural and national heritage. The only widespread agreement when it comes to discussions of the definition of ?Judaism? is that there is widespread disagreement over what it implies with regard to one's Jewish identity.

But much more troubling than these contending definitions intrinsic to perceptions of Judaism is the issue of one's Jewish identity in its relationship to an extrinsic but parallel non‑Jewish identity one also possesses: as an American, or as an Australian, or even as an Israeli. The problem becomes most acute when one's twinned loyalties erupt in conflict. For example, what is the appropriate response for an American Jew when the political interests of the United States and of Israel clash, or when the question arises of allowing our daughter to marry their son? In such circumstances one suddenly becomes uncomfortably aware that he possesses two identities, but now must choose one of them to be his ?our? and the other to be his ?their.? The discomfort becomes even more unsettling when, having to make such a choice, the Jew also realizes that the majority of his fellow countrymen simply will never face such a dilemma: their identity is always unitary; never, like his, binary. Yet even this recognition does not resolve the Jew's identity crisis because in truth, both alternatives, both the American and the Jewish, constitute his ?ours?; neither is ?theirs.?

The Jewish Identity

Scholars commonly explain the origin of this confusion over the meaning of Jewish identity by tracing it to the effects of the nineteenth century emancipation of the Jews from the ghetto and from legalized sociopolitical discrimination. This liberation resulted in Jewish acculturation; the once segregated Jewish population eagerly, or reluctantly, came to adopt the values of the dominant society, confining their Jewishness to the synagogue and, for the very devout, also to the kitchen. Where distinctions do arise between these acculturated Jews and their neighbors, it is the result primarily of informal snobbish anti‑Jewish discrimination by some non‑Jews, or atavistic outbursts of overt anti‑Semitism by hate‑mongering opportunists. But while this scholarly analysis may be descriptively accurate, it fails completely as an explanation for the dilemma of modern Jewish identity.

The glaring flaw in the argument is also to be found in Jewish history. Both the great Jewish philosophers Saadia Gaon, living in tenth century Baghdad, and the Rambam (Maimonides), living in twelfth century Fostad (Cairo), were thoroughly acculturated to the predominant Arabic culture, composed their major philosophic works in Arabic, and addressed equally acculturated Arabic‑speaking audiences, Jewish and non‑Jewish alike; each explored in his own fashion the implications of the latest advances in intellectual speculations that had originated from sophisticated scholarship conducted outside the Jewish community and contrary to Jewish traditions. Yet neither these philosophers themselves, nor their readers, experienced the disorientation of Jewish identity that has become so widespread among contemporary Westernized Jews. Therefore, the key to understanding what lies at the root of the modern confusion over Jewish identity must not lie with acculturation, but rather with certain facets of modernity. And there is no more appropriate place to begin investigating the issue of Jewish identity and modernity than in the analyses and responses of Israel Zangwill.

In an 1892 lecture, ?Hebrew, Jew, Israelite,? expressing themes appearing in his first international fictional triumph, Children of the Ghetto, Zangwill sought to analyze the intrinsic definition of Jewishness. This he found in the ?triple names? the Jewish people possess: ‑ Hebrew, Jew, Israel. According to Zangwill, these names represent an hierarchical set of values in which ?the Hebrew is the ideal, the Jew, the adherent of an historical system, the Israelite the Jew by birth.? ?Israelite? is the genetic, ethnic heritage which provides the physical basis for the other two qualities; ?Jew;? the unique, concrete religious system practiced by this people, and ?Hebrew;? the generalized cultural norms derived from Judaism that all civilized societies have adopted. Thus, in Zangwill's analysis, Judaism functions as the mediating force translating the particular historical experiences of one ethnic group into essential universal cultural norms.

Zangwill's Ethical Monotheism

The British born Zangwill had been preoccupied by the nature of Judaism since being requested to compose an article on English Judaism in 1889 for the intellectually ambitious new Anglo‑Jewish journal, The Jewish Quarterly Review. However, it was only in 1895 that Zangwill crystallized his conception of Judaism. In his essay, The Position of Judaism, which provided the ideological rationale for his fictional work, Dreamers of the Ghetto, Zangwill asserted that the essential core of Judaism is ?ethical monotheism;? its unique contribution to world culture, which he described as the ?tendency to unification? of the Good with the True and the Beautiful by ?influencing character through [ethical] conduct.? Expressing a view still quite commonly espoused by many Jews, Zangwill argued that his notion of Judaism was as a wholly natural historical phenomenon for which the veracity of the Torah and the existence of G‑d are both entirely irrelevant. He argued that ?to such a creed as Judaism the verbal authenticity of its sacred book is a triviality; to such an organization as Israel even the fall of theism would not necessarily be fatal.?

But, ironically, for Zangwill, himself, it was indeed fatal! Commenting on the lurch toward suicide by one of his protagonists in Dreamers of the Ghetto, the narrator observes:

?Justice, Pity, Love ‑ something that [he] understood [but] his soul rejected all the solutions and self‑equations. The world without God was a beautiful, heartless woman ‑ cold irresponsive. He needed the flesh of soul. He had loved Nature, but the passion always faded and the old hunger for God came back.?

Zangwill never abandoned his intellectual analysis of Judaism nor ceased urgently yearning for the God Who revealed the Torah to the Jewish people and to Whom they pray with calm assurance. And like his doomed fictional character, this rent in his soul would eventually contribute to his leap from the precipice into madness and oblivion.

Equally recognizable in our contemporary attitudes is Zangwill's analysis of the extrinsic identity of the Jew. Here he sought to resolve the psychic pressure of binary identities: the Jews, too, like all the world's nations, must possess but a single, unitary identity. His solution was to bifurcate the Jewish people!

Zangwill had long been troubled by his sense of twinned identities, of being, on the one hand, an Englishman proud of Britain's long and impressive cultural and political heritage, and, on the other hand, of being Jewish, heir to a significantly different tradition and set of values. In 1900, after having for several years attempted to amalgamate the two identities, he called for the next generation of Anglo‑Jews to ?be trained to consider themselves Englishmen or let them be taught to consider themselves as noble [Jewish] exiles.... But let not their brains be muddled and tampered with, as mine was, by two contradictory teachings.?

Assimilationist Philosophy

In a 1901 article, The Return to Palestine, he expounded his thesis that modernity had decreed an inescapable bifurcated future for the Jewish people, the branches of which would be determined by whether they had become acculturated to Western values or not. For those who had, the future decreed complete ideological and physical assimilation. Zangwill himself embraced the theory in his private life as well as in his public statements, marrying an aspiring young non‑Jewish author in 1903.

In 1907 he propounded a complete exposition of his assimilationist philosophy in a popular play whose title, The Melting Pot, would introduce a new term to characterize American ethnic pluralism. According to The Melting Pot, assimilation of the Israelite physically would result in further strengthening of the Hebraic cultural values already gleaned from Judaism by Western civilization. Thus the intrinsic and extrinsic meanings of Jewish identity would amalgamate in the melting pot of assimilation to the benefit of all humanity.

On the other hand, for those Jews who had not become acculturated ‑ the great mass of Eastern European Jewry suffering the ravages of officially sponsored anti‑Semitic persecution ‑ the future decreed a radically different alternative: a politically autonomous ?land of refuge? where traditional Judaism could be practiced unimpeded by the allurements of Western secular culture. Zangwill argued that it was in the self‑interest of European nations to establish such a land, for in this fashion, Judaism would be liberated so as to nurture the Hebraic values sustaining all civilized peoples. Once again, for this segment of the Jewish people, the intrinsic and extrinsic Jewish identities would fuse in a fashion benefiting all humanity.

Accordingly, in 1903, simultaneous with his choice of assimilation and intermarriage, Zangwill also joined the new Zionist movement, viewing it as the means of achieving such a refuge, although he rejected the idea that such a land should also attract assimilated Western Jews. As the particular location of the ?land of refuge? was immaterial to Zangwill, he enthusiastically embraced the 1903 British offer to establish a Jewish colony in its East Africa Protectorate. When the 1905 Zionist Congress rejected this ?Uganda scheme,? it was Zangwill who led a secessionist group, organized as the Territorialist movement, to continue negotiations with the British, who had, however, decided to withdraw the offer. Later, following the First World War, during the course of which the British had conquered the Land of Israel from the Ottomans, Zangwill abandoned Territorialism to urge the displacement of the Arab population from Palestine as the only means of securing it as the Jewish ?land of refuge.? When the Zionist leadership and the British repudiated his demand for population relocation, Zangwill despaired of Zionism and bitterly denounced its leaders for betraying their promises to the persecuted Jews of Eastern Europe, a view he fiercely proclaimed for the remainder of his life in every forum available to him.

Finding a Solution to Twin Identities

Zangwill's theoretical solution to extrinsic twinned identities experienced by acculturated Jews was obviously no more successful than his resolution of the issue of intrinsic identities, no matter how intellectually elegant it might have appeared. For Zangwill himself, having deliberately chosen the assimilationist course, proceeded to sacrifice his career as a prominent British author in order to devote himself single‑mindedly to the task of rescuing persecuted Jews and of reinvigorating their Judaism, no matter what financial, physical, and mental toll the endeavor might cost him. Escaping his double identities in the ?melting pot? of assimilation proved as chimerical for him as dispensing with God in Judaism had been. As with his forlorn protagonists in Dreamers of the Ghetto, the effort led only to madness and death.

Nevertheless, Zangwill's pioneering analyses are instructive. His alternate solutions to the issue of Jewish identity remain exactly those still advocated by many Jews today: either the melting pot of assimilation or self‑imposed segregation, be it in a politically autonomous, but culturally assimilated homeland or, ostrich‑like, in a deliberately sealed cultural ghetto. Neither solution works! For however theoretically appealing such solutions might superficially appear, they both consider Jewishness from a perspective that proves not merely impractical but, even more to the point, a profound distortion of reality.

The experience of identity disorientation among contemporary Jews is not the result of acculturation, but rather of assimilation, of adopting non‑Jewish categories in defining the identity and purpose of the Jew. It is precisely here that modern Jews differ so radically from those of eras of Saadia Gaon and of the Rambam; for at those times Jews understood that although one is thoroughly acculturated into the predominant non‑Jewish society, Jewish identity can never be satisfactorily defined through the application of categories alien and external to it. The Jewish people's standards and values necessarily must originate solely from the Torah, and the identity of the Jew emerges only from the experience of living as a Jew. And this identity, as revealed through a life led in accord with the Torah, is defined in terms of the purpose and goal of such a life. Thus, to be a Jew is to be a finite being uniquely endowed with the capability and lifelong task of refining oneself and one's environment until the Divine Transcendence becomes united with the Divine Immanence in this mundane physical world.

Given this definition, the Jew must neither surrender to secular Western society nor flee from it. Rather, the Torah directs that the task of the Jewish people is to participate in the surrounding society while nonetheless scrupulously adhering to the teachings of the Torah and the practice of its mitzvot. In this manner they will come to elevate themselves and the entire world so as to become fit dwelling places for the revealed Presence of God. Such is the true meaning of being a Jew in our contemporary world!

Joseph H. Udelson is Professor of History at Tennessee State University. His book on the life of Israel Zangwill will be published this June by University of Alabama Press.



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