Israel's Picture Maker


At the moment when Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, his blood seeped through his clothing, staining a hymn sheet he held in his pocket. That note was presented to David Rubinger. A guardian of his nation's history, Rubinger has spent a significant part of his life chronicling Israel's story thus far. Israeli president and two-time prime minister Shimon Peres called him “the photographer of a nation in the making”.

On the eve of the country's 61st year of existence, 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.”

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.

Ben-Gurion, when he had differences of opinion, retired, went to the desert, sat in a little settlement in the desert till they came and called him back.”

David recalls Israel's founder David Ben-Gurion as having been right about the Palestinian issue.

Having borne witness to the numerous opportunities missed by both Israel and the Palestinians throughout the last six decades at peace, does he lose hope?

“Well if there is no hope then I don't see why we should stay alive,” Rubinger responds.

“Look at Europe. They killed each other for hundreds of years and now you don't even know when you cross the border from France to Germany. France and Germany had been killing each other for something like 600 years. So it took a lot of blood in World War II, so Europe finally came to its senses.”

In the meantime, Rubinger busies himself as a sort of cultural ambassador for Israel.

Back in 2000, Rubinger was tasked with finding the man who shot a half-naked Ben Gurion standing on his head on a beach. He traced it to an Israeli photographer Paul Goldman, who died sans recognition 14 years ago.

David visited his attic, a treasure trove of thousands of never-before-seen photos documenting the founding of the State of Israel. With the support of Spencer Patrich, an American real estate tycoon, Rubinger is now touring the world with both his and Paul's pictures in an exhibition named, “Eretz Israel: Birth of a Nation”. The Egyptian ambassador was there at the showing in Bangkok and he quipped,

“Why did you call it “Eretz Israel: Birth of a Nation”? Your nation is much older than that. You should call it “Birth of a State”!”

The tour keeps Rubinger busy. He may be 83, but he still goes around meeting people, taking photos of them with the digital Leica camera slung over his shoulder.

His chosen profession made David Rubinger an eyewitness to the modern history of his country, but Israel's reality did not leave his personal life untouched.

After his wife Anni died seven years ago, he met Ziona Spivak and had a relationship he called, “perfect”. One day, her Palestinian gardener demanded from her a loan of almost US$6,000. She refused. He grabbed a knife, stabbed her from behind, and slit her throat. It was David who discovered her body.

A week of grieving later, he readied himself to take his and Paul's works on the road. It was his way of dealing with the unbearable loss.

For Rubinger, that was how he kept the memories of the departed alive.


View THE MOVING PICTURE SHOW > Israel in Pictures

September 2007

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dan-chyi chuaDan-Chyi Chua began her writing career with Channel News Asia, a regional cable network, before forsaking broadcast journalism to hit the road for a three-year sabbatical through the Middle East, China, Central America and Cuba. She has now grounded herself as a writer for asia! Magazine.

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