On July 17, 1948, Ben Dunkelman, the commander of Israeli forces that a day earlier had conquered the Arab city of Nazareth, refused an order from his superiors to expel the residents of the city, who had already surrendered with virtually no resistance. His superiors backed down, the majority of Nazareth’s citizens stayed put, and no one was massacred or banished.
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Benjamin Dunkelman was a Canadian volunteer, the first to arrive in Israel, in April 1948, shortly before independence. He was born in Toronto on June 16, 1913, one of six children of David Dunkelman and the former Rose Miller. David was a successful clothing manufacturer, and Rose was active in a number of Jewish causes and organizations in Toronto, including Hadassah.
When he reached age 18, Ben’s parents bought him a ticket to sail to Palestine and back. He came, and remained a year, working on a private farm, Tel Asher. When he returned home, in 1932, he attended Upper Canada College and worked in the family business.
During World War II, Dunkelman volunteered for the Queen’s Own Rifles regiment of Canada (his first choice was the Royal Canadian Navy, but such a course wasn’t open to a Jew at the time), and he underwent officers’ training in Britain. He saw action in France, Belgium, Holland and Germany, participating in the Allied landings in Normandy on June 6, 1944, and receiving a Distinguished Service Order for his service in Operation Blockbuster, in Germany, in February 1945. He finished the war with the rank of major.
After the war, Dunkelman was offered the opportunity to command the Queen’s Own Rifles, and was also encouraged to run for Canadian parliament. Instead, he went into business back in Toronto, and when war began to seem inevitable in Israel, he led the effort to organize Canadian volunteers with military experience to help out.
Back in Israel in the spring of 1948, Dunkelman was given command of the 7th Armored Brigade, after participating with the Harel Brigade in breaking the siege on Jerusalem, under Yitzhak Rabin. In Operation Dekel, which began on July 8, 1948, the Seventh Brigade, together with comrades from the Carmeli and Golani Brigades, was given the mission of capturing Nazareth and its environs in the Lower Galilee.
On July 16, Nazareth surrendered, with almost no resistance. The city elders did so in an agreement with the IDF, led by Dunkelman, which promised them they would be left in peace. The following day, however, Dunkelman received an order from General Haim Laskov, his direct superior (and later Israel’s chief of staff), to evacuate the civilian population of Nazareth. Dunkelman later told Israeli journalist Peretz Kidron that he was “shocked and horrified. I told [Laskov] I would do nothing of the sort — in view of our promises to safeguard the city’s people… 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. When Haim saw that I refused to obey the order, he left.”
Laskov appealed to the IDF General Staff for an order, and the question was referred to David Ben-Gurion, the defense minister. His response was that “the inhabitants of Nazareth should not be expelled.”
Two days later, Dunkelman was replaced as military governor of Nazareth, but at the same time, the Seventh Brigade was withdrawn from the city. Dunkelman said that “I felt sure that [the order to withdraw from Nazareth] had been given because of my defiance of the evacuation order.”
At the end of the war, Dunkelman turned down an offer from Ben-Gurion to remain in Israel as an army officer. He and his wife, Yael, whom he had met in the IDF, went back to Canada, where he eventually became involved in real-estate development. His projects in Toronto included the Cloverdale Mall and the Regal-Constellation Hotel, and he and Yael also owned an art gallery and several restaurants.
Ben Dunkelman died on June 11, 1997, just short of his 84th birthday.