Pen Ultimate / Israel's Land for the Jews

What were the origins of Zangwill's Zionist slogan, coined a century ago?

Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts
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Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts

Last week I mentioned en passant the English writer and Zionist Israel Zangwill, who merits much more than a passing remark in the history of Zionism. Historians, and mainly anti-Zionists, credit him with coining the Zionist slogan "a people without a land, a land without a people."

But that is a simplification and a misquote of what he wrote in an essay entitled "The Return to Palestine," which was printed in The New Liberal Review in December, 1901: "Palestine is a country without a people; the Jews are a people without a country. The regeneration of the soil would bring the regeneration of the people. It is marvelous that the country should have remained comparatively empty for 1,800 years; but it cannot remain unexploited much longer."

In the same essay, where he enumerates "the pioneers of Zionism," he mentions the Earl of Shaftesbury ?(1801-1885?). In another essay, written in 1917 and entitled "The Fate of Palestine" I got to read both of the essays cited here thanks to Edna Nachshon, who edited three of Zangwill's Jewish plays ?(due to be published by Wayne State University Press?) Zangwill writes about the serious difficulty facing Jews on their way to Palestine, and gives credit for the slogan attributed to him where it's due: "'Give the country without a people,' magnanimously pleaded Lord Shaftesbury, 'to the people without a country.' Alas, it was a misleading mistake. The country holds 600,000 Arabs [whereas] the total area of Palestine yet acquired is not 2 per cent, nor did the Jewish population ... exceed 100,000."

Zangwill, in his turn, was misquoting a millenarian Christian who believed that the rapidly approaching Second Coming of Jesus had to be preceded by the ingathering of the Jews in the Holy Land. In 1853, in a letter considering the possible dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, Shaftesbury wrote about how, geographically, Syria was "a country without a nation" that needed to be matched up with "a nation without a country." He asked: "Is there such a thing? To be sure there is: the ancient and rightful lords of the soil, the Jews!"

Dr. Adam M. Garfinkle currently a speechwriter to the U.S. secretary of state and a member of the policy planning staff, who also taught U.S. foreign policy and Middle East politics at the University of Pennsylvania, Haverford College and Tel Aviv University wrote an essay about the origin of the remark attributed to Zangwill, its uses and abuses ?(Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 27, No. 4, 1991?). He found yet another possible source: an American non-Jew, John Lawson Stoddard ?(1850-1931?) of Brookline, Massachusetts.

Lawson traveled all over the world. In 1879, at the age of 27, he returned to the United States and embarked upon an extraordinarily successful career as a public lecturer. He had a gimmick: using slides ?(stereographs?) made with the stereopticon, whose presentation he helped to perfect. His lectures appeared in book form in 1897, and there one can read: "At present Palestine supports only 600,000 people but, with proper cultivation, it can easily maintain 2.5 million. You are a people without a country; there is a country without a people. Be united. Fulfill the dreams of your old poets and patriarchs. Go back, go back to the land of Abraham."

Mohammedan aliens Theodor Herzl was indeed surprised to discover that Zion was not an empty piece of land, but the aforementioned Zionist slogan is usually defended on the grounds that it does not refer to the lack of "people" thus ignoring the existence of the Arabs living there but to that of "a people," meaning a politically self-aware entity, according to a 19th-century notion of a nation. This does matter, but less than one might assume.

In his book "The Voice of Jeruslem" ?(1920?), Zangwill quotes his speech from 1904: "There is ... a difficulty from which the Zionist dares not avert his eyes, though he rarely likes to face it. Palestine proper has already its inhabitants. The pashalik [province] of Jerusalem is already twice as thickly populated as the United States, having 52 souls to every square mile, and not 25 percent of them Jews; so we must be prepared either to drive out by the sword the tribes in possession as our forefathers did, or to grapple with the problem of a large alien population, mostly Mohammedan."

A possible solution in Zangwill's eyes was a willing "transfer" of the Arab population even if this would be a costly operation for the Jews. He even wrote about the advantages of a transfer for the potential transferees.

By 1904 Zangwill became fully aware of the Arab problem, which led him to the establishment of the Jewish Territorialist Organization. Together with Herzl he supported the Uganda plan, although the territory under consideration for the future Jewish state was not actually the densely populated Uganda, but the virtually empty country of East Africa. After he gave up territorialism, because there were not enough Jewish "takers," Zangwill wrote that had Jews settled in East Africa, they would have been in a position to claim and to assume the mandate for Palestine after World War I.

In 1921 Samuel Roth, the Jewish-American publisher of pornographic books, wrote "Now and Forever" an imaginary dialogue between him and Zangwill, about the past, present and future of the Jews. Zangwill himself wrote a preface for the book, even though in its pages, he felt he was "abused, or at least misunderstood or misrepresented." He wrote the preface out of admiration for Roth's poetry and pugnacity, as "he appears to belong to a young generation of Zionists who were in their cradles when I was fighting for Zion, and who absorbed prejudice against me with their mothers' milk."

Writing in 1921 Zangwill does not share the Jewish enthusiasm for the Balfour Declaration ?(signed 88 years ago, last week?): "My spirit bubbled over into Limericks which, I fear, had more inspiration than many more portentous oracles: There was a lost lady of Zion / Who was offered a lift on a lion / She was mounting astride / When he roared: "Step inside. There is no room on top of a lion." / Responded that lady of Zion, / "Why should I go inside a lion? / I was promised a State / And a happier fate." / "L'etat c'est dans moi," said the lion.