In honour of Canada’s 150th birthday, The CJN presents 40 profiles of some of the most prominent Jewish Canadians throughout our history.
Given his contributions to pre-state Israel, both as a kibbutznik and a Machal volunteer, it’s not a stretch to say that Israel wouldn’t be the same today, if not for the late Benjamin Dunkelman.
The son of Polish immigrants, Dunkelman was born in Toronto in 1913, to Tip Top Tailors founders David and Rose Dunkelman. But it was Rose – an ardent Zionist who opened their estate to visiting leaders of the Zionist cause – who undoubtedly influenced her son’s commitment to Israel.
Dunkelman first became acquainted with life in Palestine, when he volunteered to work on a kibbutz in 1931, at age 18.
Although he returned to Toronto the following year to help with the family business, he returned again to pre-state Israel in the late 1930s, to help develop settlements.
When the Second World War broke out, Dunkelman didn’t hesitate to enlist. After being rejected by the Royal Canadian Navy because of his Jewish faith, he joined the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada.
Among his many accomplishments that raised him through the ranks from private to major by the end of the war, Dunkelman was part of the second wave to land on Juno Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Throughout his career, he earned a number of commendations, as well as a Distinguished Service Order for his service in the Hochwald campaign in Germany. Two months later, Hitler committed suicide and the war was effectively over.
Dunkelman was offered command of the Queen’s Own Rifles after the war, but opted instead to return home and immerse himself in the family business.
But it wasn’t long before Dunkelman jumped back into battle – this time, as a member of the Machal, a unit of foreign Jewish and non-Jewish volunteers who fought for Israel’s independence.
In addition to recruiting Canadians to join the Haganah, Dunkelman was instrumental in breaking the siege of Jerusalem, which was completely cut off from supplies and on the verge of starvation. His efforts helped establish a route that allowed much-needed supplies into the city.
Dunkelman also led the army division that captured the Galilee and the city of Nazareth. Gesher Ben, a bridge on the Lebanese border, was named in his honour.
These stories and more are detailed in Dunkelman’s 1976 memoir, Dual Allegiance, but there was one story that Dunkelman chose to omit, one that was brought to light after the book’s publication, by his ghostwriter, the late Peretz Kidron.
According to Kidron, Dunkelman chose to omit a story that detailed his role in saving the civilians of the Arab city of Nazareth from expulsion, following their surrender in July 1948.
“Haim Laskov (came) to me with astounding orders: Nazareth’s civilian population was to be evacuated! I was shocked and horrified. I told him I would do nothing of the sort – in view of our promises to safeguard the city’s people, such a move would be both superfluous and harmful. I reminded him that scarcely a day earlier, he and I, as representatives of the Israeli army, had signed the surrender document in which we solemnly pledged to do nothing to harm the city or its population,” he wrote.
Dunkelman’s wife Yael, also a volunteer in the army, whom he met and married during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, told the Toronto Star in 2015 that Dunkelman was “a loving person. He was a humanitarian – that was the essence of it.… The idea of forcing civilians from their homes was never something he would ever be able to do.”