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Israel through the camera lens

This was reposted on May 18, 2017 in honor of Jerusalem Day and the IJN‘s special commemorative section. It was originally published on Feb. 14, 2014

When you hear the words “most iconic Zionist photograph”, chances are it’s the image to the right that comes immediately to mind. In his photo of the photo of three paratroopers against the backdrop of the newly-liberated Western Wall, David Rubinger managed to create a visual that perfectly reflected the euphoria and awe felt by the Jewish nation after the Six Day War.

But Rubinger’s rich portfolio offers far more than a singular image. The photojournalist long employed by Time-Life, recently shared his life story at an event in Zurich hosted by Keren Hayesod (United Israel Appeal).

In fact the photographer is fairly blasé about the image that’s come to define his six-decade career. The paratroopers were simply “tired and sweating” after six days of fighting, and with a hint of humor he points out that one soldier even removed his helmet, which is ironic as it’s customary to don a head covering at the Kotel — not remove one! It’s not the composition Rubinger himself would have chosen, but “people see holiness in the photo,” he dryly comments, hitting on a critical aspect of the arts: Interpretation is in the eye of the beholder, not the creator.

An octogenarian, Rubinger’s life parallels that of the Jewish State. As a Viennese Holocaust refugee, he fled Europe for Palestine with a Youth Aliyah via Trieste. He soon returned to Europe, but as a soldier with the British Army. After the war, he met and married his wife, a survivor of Stutthof concentration camp. The impetus for marriage wasn’t romance, but a visa for Palestine; the coupled planned to divorce, but ended up staying married for 54 years. Along the way, he was gifted his first camera by a beautiful, young Parisienne.

Back in Palestine, Rubinger fought in the 1948 War of Independence, and then as a Time-Life photographer began creating a visual record of the newly-formed state’s ascendancy; his plum position at the prestigious American magazine brought him into close contact with Israel’s elite, though he emphasizes how rough-and-tumble and non-hierarchical those early days were — and to some extent, still are.

A series of images depicting Israel’s leadership shows just that. David Ben-Gurion lying in a hospital bed with the smile of a patient hopped up on painkillers; Golda Meir preparing coffee in what’s an extremely spartan kitchen; Ehud Olmert, wearing a loud apron, washing the dishes after a Shabbat meal; and the pièce de résistance, Shimon Peres unpacking boxes — but with his pants having gone for a walk. Luckily his dress shirt was baggy!

A magnificent photograph of one-time Denverite Golda Meir captures her steel strength — and trademark vice, smoking. Apparently someone once warned Golda, don’t you know it’s unhealthy to smoke? Her answer: “Young I won’t die anymore.” This is typical of the humor Rubinger infuses into his anecdotes throughout the evening.

Most of Rubinger’s photos are, however, far more serious, capturing the antipodean imagery of war and peace, from an unearthed Egyptian corpse on the Sinai desert to a whispered exchange between Israel’s Menachem Begin and Egypt’s Anwar Sadat.

Rubinger maintains a wry tone throughout, often funny, sometimes serious, always insightful. Not only was he present at, but he documented the key moments in Israel’s history. For this crowd of twenty- and thirty-somethings, whose firsthand experience of Israel is primarily post Oslo, David Rubinger brings history to life.

David Rubinger’s memoir, Israel Through My Lens: Sixty Years as a Photojournalist, is available via Tattered Cover or Amazon.

Shana Goldberg

IJN Assistant Publisher |

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