Israel's Picture Maker

BY DAN-CHYI CHUA
May 07, 2009
*Special to asia!

David Rubinger, a guardian of Israel's history, has spent a significant part of his life chronicling Israel's story thus far.

On the eve of the country's 61st year of existence, theasiamag.com revisits a candid David Rubinger talking about his work, being a witness to the Israel's history and the right thing to do by the Palestinians.

His name may not be recognisable at first glance but his works are.

There is a photograph that has become the iconic shot of the 1967 Six-Day War, and David Rubinger was the photographer. His shot of the three Israeli paratroopers before the Wailing Wall was broadcast and published again the world over. It had been the first time the Jews officially controlled their holy city, Jerusalem, in 2,000 years. Exhausted after an intensive though swift victory, the faces of the trio in front of Judaism's most revered site – the last standing remnant of Solomon's Temple destroyed before the Jews were dispersed from their Promised Land – said it all.

It will go down in history as one of the most emblematic pictures of the Six Day War, Israel's quick victory over her Arab neighbours that expanded its territory three-fold. But David Rubinger doesn't claim credit for it. He would have missed the shot, if it had not been for his late wife by his side.

“She pointed it out and said, David, it will make a good picture.”

That is the humility of David Rubinger, a former Time-Life photographer awarded the Jewish state's highest honour – the Israel Prize. He attributes a lot of his success not to his talent but to luck.

Returning to Israel after fighting for the British during World War Two, he gave up his entitlement as an ex-serviceman to a government position. He took an 80% pay cut, and became a photographer, though he had received his first camera only a couple of years before.

“I was given the camera by a lovely French girl. Her name was Claudette.”

“What was it that attracted you about the camera?”

“About Claudette?” he grins.

Yes, David Rubinger is a funny man.

The next woman in his life, he speaks highly of. She is his late wife, a concentration camp survivor, Anni whom he married after the war. While most people questioned his decision to forego a comfortable job, she stood by him.

It was a risky business. Sometimes we didn't have enough to eat but we stuck it out... When you have a wife who supports you, you can do anything.

“It was a risky business. Sometimes we didn't have enough to eat but we stuck it out... When you have a wife who supports you, you can do anything.”

In 1954, Time Magazine published his first picture, a photo of a trial in Israel of one man accusing another of colluding with the Nazis. He still has the page today. For the next five decades Rubinger worked for the now-defunct American pictorial magazine, Life. Based in Jerusalem, he went on the cover all the main events in Israel's post-independence history. I asked him which picture he is most pleased with.

“The picture that I think is the best I could have done at that moment. I was lucky, because I knew somebody.”

This was another of Rubinger's iconic photos. It was taken after two years after the 1978 Camp David Accords hosted by US President Jimmy Carter, of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Hopes for peace were alive.

“There are the leaders of two nations that fought four wars, in '48, '56, '67, '73, four wars, bloody wars. Suddenly they are so intimate. They made peace.”

The media was kept out while Begin and Sadat met privately. Rubinger knew Begin's personal assistant, a colonel who had given him the key to his room upstairs where he believed David would get a good shot from.

He was the only one that did, with a 300mm lens. And for this, he credits luck, and good connections.

“My former picture editor at Time magazine said at a meeting with all the photographers in New York, ‘I can get a good photographer to shoot a sharp picture a dime a dozen. What I need is for you people to make good connections with your subjects.’ ”

Rubinger stuck by that piece of advice throughout his career.

At a closed-door session with Ariel Sharon, one of the former Israeli Prime Minister's advisers noticed Rubinger's presence and advised Sharon against continuing the meeting because there was “media” milling around.

“And Sharon looks up and says, ‘Oh, I know David,’ he recalls. ‘I trust him. I know he doesn’t vote for me.’”

Rubinger may be modest about his craft, but like all Israelis, he is outspoken about his country and its politics.

He is unafraid to speak out against its policies towards the Palestinians, and has been criticised for it.

“Some stupid bastard says you are an Arab lover, you hate your own people, you love the enemy. I say you are stupid. It is because I love my own people that I say that. Because I am a Jew, because I am an Israeli, I am worried about what the occupation does to us. Because by being oppressed, they become stronger morally.

“My children, my grandchildren in the Israeli army, they have to shoot other people, they become weak morally.”

Rubinger denies that he is a patriot, but his love for Israel betrays that assertion. He speaks with pride about Israel's pioneering leaders.

“There was a generation of pioneers, people like David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, the pioneers, highly dedicated idealists. They did not go into politics to become powerful.

“There is a difference between a statesman and a politician. A statesman says I think my nation has to go this way and he goes and he expects the people to follow. A politician says I think my nation has to go this way, don't you think so?

“Then the people behind him say, 'No this way is better, there are more people voting that way.' He looks behind him and he says, 'Oh you want to go that way, okay we will go that way. Just vote for me.' So he goes the opposite direction from what he says and what he knows. That is a politician. A statesman, you don't want to go this way, then go without me, I don't want to be your leader.

dan-chyi chua

Dan-Chyi Chua was a broadcast journalist, before forsaking Goggle Box Glitz for the Open Road. A three-year foray led her through the Middle East, China, SE Asia, Latin America and Cuba, and she's now grounded herself as a writer for theasiamag.com, content with spending her days in Jerusalem.

Contact Dan-Chyi