Zangwill was born in London on January 21, 1864 in a family of Jewish immigrants from Czarist Russia, to Moses Zangwill from what is now Latvia and Ellen Hannah Marks Zangwill from what is now Poland. He dedicated his life to championing the cause of the oppressed. Jewish emancipation, women's suffrage, assimilationism, territorialism and Zionism were all fertile fields for his pen. His brother was also a writer, the novelist Louis Zangwill, and his son was the prominent British psychologist, Oliver Zangwill.
Zangwill received his early schooling in Plymouth and Bristol. When he was nine years old Zangwill was enrolled in the Jews' Free School in Spitalfields in east London, a school for Jewish immigrant children. The school offered a strict course of both secular and religious studies while supplying clothing, food, and health care for the scholars; today one of its four houses is named Zangwill in his honour. At this school young Israel excelled and even taught part-time, moving up to become a full-fledged teacher. While teaching, he studied for his degree in 1884 from the University of London, earning a BA with triple honours.
Zangwill married Edith Ayrton, a gentile feminist and author who was the daughter of cousins Matilda Chaplin and William Edward Ayrton.
In later life, his friends included well known Victorian writers such as Jerome K. Jerome and H. G. Wells.
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