When the Comic Stops Laughing


Israel Zangwill (1864-1929) was a British humorist, a writer, and an early Zionist activist. He eventually left the Zionist movement in order to lead a movement called Territorialism, which called for a homeland for the Jewish people wherever they could get it–be it South America, Germany, or elsewhere.

Zangwill tried to arouse sympathy for Territorialism among Britain’s intellectual elite, but this never fully worked. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of Sherlock Holmes, “had difficulty imagining Jews as farmers,” according to Zangwill’s biographer Meri-Jane Rochelson. H.G. Wells (author of War of the Worlds) had some choice words for Zangwill: “I can offer you neither help nor advice,” Wells wrote. “Your people are rich enough, able enough, and potent enough to save themselves.”

Later in life, Zangwill renounced his hope for a Jewish homeland, and began to dream of a world that shared a single culture. One of Zangwill’s plays, The Melting Pot (1909), popularized the titular term. It was an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, whose young lovers are two Russian immigrants to America, a Jew and a Christian. In the end, the characters decide to shed their differences by abandoning their religions, choosing instead to be simply human. After the play opened in Washington, D.C., President Theodore Roosevelt reportedly yelled out from his box: “That’s a great play, Mr. Zangwill, a great play!”

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