Israel’s Canine Pioneer

May 17, 2023 | Allan Arkush
About the author: Allan Arkush is the senior contributing editor of the Jewish Review of Books and professor of Judaic studies and history at Binghamton University.

Born into a wealthy Viennese Jewish family in 1891, Rudolphina Menzel became an ardent Zionist in her youth and obtained a PhD in the sciences before she bought her first dog, which she taught to answer to commands in Hebrew. She then set about learning everything she could about dogs, bred them professionally, and advised police and military units about how best to train her soon-famous “Linzer boxers.” At the invitation of the future Israeli president Yitzḥak Ben-Zvi, she visited Palestine to provide similar consultations for the Haganah. Allan Arkush, reviewing a collection of essays about Menzel’s remarkable life, writes:

Proud of the small cadre of dog trainers that she had left behind to continue her work, she returned to Europe, deeply impressed by what she had seen in Palestine. “I found a free people,” she wrote, “free despite limits on immigration and the like. . . . I had regained my faith in humanity.”

What she witnessed back in Europe in the mid-1930s couldn’t leave that faith intact. But even though Nazism was making inroads everywhere, the Austrian Cynology Association insisted, as late as 1935, that she and her husband represent Austria at a big international cynological congress in Germany. Even more surprisingly, Der Hund, the official German publication for dog sports, published a picture of the Menzels bearing the caption “The German researcher couple from Austria” next to a picture of Hitler and Göring.

After Austria merged with Germany in 1938, Menzel and her husband left for the Land of Israel permanently, where she threw herself into her cynological work—which included helping both the Haganah and the British train dogs for military purposes:

In the final months of 1947, when full-scale war was on the horizon, Menzel was driven around Palestine to find pets and stray dogs that could be usefully pressed into service. . . . While the magnitude of the role played by the hundreds of “four-legged soldiers” serving in the IDF in the War of Independence has never been properly assessed, there was at the time “widespread understanding that dogs had contributed to the Jewish victory.” The Arabs, hampered by traditional Muslim beliefs about the uncleanliness of dogs and lacking a Rudolphina Menzel of their own, had no dogs of their own in the fight.

The army absorbed the Menzels’ research institute [after Israel’s independence], but at fifty-seven, Rudolphina wasn’t ready to retire, so she founded the Israel Institute for Orientation and Mobility of the Blind. The institute concentrated on training guide dogs for the many people—both Arabs and Jews—who needed them but were deeply wary of them. She also resumed her purely scientific work and, among many other things, developed Israel’s national breed, the Canaan dog.

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