Photographer who captured Israel’s heroic era
HIS NEAR-MYSTICAL image of Israeli paratroopers at Jerusalem’s Western Wall was a moment of epiphany during the 1967 Six-Day War. For the man who took it, photo-journalist David Rubinger, who has died aged 92, it represented a singular period in his country’s life, when Israel was all too briefly seen as little David dispatching the murderous Goliath.
In a symbolic way, it was also a response to another image imprinted on the Jewish consciousness — a small boy in the Warsaw Ghetto, holding up his hands in terror.
A photojournalist for Time-Life Magazine, Rubinger’s work defined his nation’s history more eloquently than any words, from Israel’s wartime front-line and the political leaders who shaped her destiny, to the immigrants who changed the demography of the Jewish state; from a jubilant crowd carrying a leader of the Entebbe raid, to former Prime Minister Menachem Begin, solicitously helping his wife into her shoe.
David Rubinger was described by Opposition leader Yitzchak Herzog as “the Marc Chagall of Israeli photography.” But Rubinger himself did not consider the Western Wall photo his best work. “Part of the face is cut off on the right side. In the middle the nose protrudes, and on the left there’s only half a face – this isn’t a good photo.”
But perfect symmetry was not what sold it. To many, the photo epitomised youthful idealism at a time of existential challenge. Shot from a low angle, it captured the beatific expressions of paratroopers Zion Karesenti, now a director and choreographer, Yitzhak Yifat, an obstetrics surgeon and Haim Oshri, an emigrant from Yemen .
Before taking the photo, later proclaimed by the Israeli Supreme Court in 2001 to be “the property of the entire nation”, Rubinger was at el-Arish on the Sinai Peninsula when he learned something “big was going to happen in Jerusalem.” He climbed into a helicopter taking wounded soldiers to Beersheba, before reaching the Old City Wall. The space was so narrow that he had to lie down to shoot the image when the paratroopers walked by.
In his 2007 autobiography, Rubinger asked how he could have been so lucky.
“I went through the wars unscathed, and survived countless other high-risk situations, and I have reached the peak of the photographic profession.” Rubinger is described as the last of his era of Austrian-Jewish celebrities who made a name for themselves in Israel. He won the Israel Prize, the country’s highest honour, in 1997.
Born in Vienna, he was the only child of Jewish Polish emigrants, Kalman a scrap dealer, and Anna neé Kahane. After the Anschluss of 1938, his father was sent to Dachau but, through a relative in London, he gained a permit enabling him to escape to the UK one year later. David was in high school at the time of the Nazi Anschluss, but with the help of Youth Aliyah he managed to escape to Mandatory Palestine at the age of 15. His mother was less fortunate. She was deported to a Belarus extermination camp where she was murdered.
In Palestine, Rubinger joined a socialist kibbutz and served with the British Army’s Jewish Brigade in North Africa and Europe. On leave in Paris, in 1942 he was given a camera by a French girlfriend — and he discovered his true love, photography.
His first professional photo was of a Jewish young people climbing a British tank to celebrate the UN Partition plan. After the war, he visited his father in England and met other surviving relatives, including a cousin, Anni Reisler. They married in 1946, in order to secure her future in Israel. This marriage of convenience — although turbulent — lasted 54 years. In Israel, Rubinger opened a photography business and was then offered a job on the Israeli daily Ha’Olam Hazeh, in 1951. Two years later, he joined the staff of Yediot Ahronot and later the Jerusalem Post.
He was invited to join Time Life in 1954, which proved to be a career move lasting 60 years. His first assignment two years later was the Suez Crisis. Despite his socialist leanings, his work as a war photo-correspondent for the weekly won the respect of the country’s leaders of all political shades.
Rubinger was the only photographer to be given a permanent Knesset exhibition and he used his status widely. His memorable shots included a quiet moment between Marc Chagall and Golda Meir, during the unveiling of the artist’s work in the Knesset; Moshe Dayan and Yitzhak Rabin sleeping in an aircraft at the end of the Six-Day War, Jordanian and Israeli soldiers shaking hands, and the dead hand of an Egyptian soldier rising reproachfully skywards out of a sand dune, his helmet beside him.
One of Rubinger’s earliest assignments
was photographing David Ben Gurion in 1957. In 1994, HarperCollins commissioned him to spend a day with Yitzhak Rabin for a photographic book A Day in the Life of Israel. One year later, he photographed the bloodstained words of Shir Lashalom (Song of Peace) found in the pocket of the murdered prime minister on that fateful day in Tel Aviv.
For younger Israelis, Rubinger’s images form a link between Zionism’s innocent, formative days and the present, perhaps their only knowledge of the country’s long dead heroes. His wife Anni helped him maintain control over his growing catalogue of images, ensuring remuneration for his life work, compiled in his book Israel Through My Lens.
While admitting to numerous affairs, he faithfully took care of his wife during her final, cancer-stricken years. Their elegantly decorated Jerusalem home, which some described as a film set, proved, after his wife’s death in 2000 to be a scene of violent tragedy, as Rubinger’s new partner Ziona Spivak, a Yemenite immigrant, was murdered there in 2004 by her former Palestinian gardener.
David Rubinger is survived by his son Amnon, daughter Tamar, five grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren. GLORIA TESSLER
Top: Israeli paratroopers at the Western Wall. Above: Arik Sharon with Ben-Gurion in Sinai. Left: Ben-Gurion “seemed carved out of granite. A sculpted prophet” -– David Rubinger