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Israel Through My Lens
By David Rubinger with Ruth Corman
336 pages; $35
Something about David Rubinger's appearance struck me as amiss when we met on a Jerusalem street recently. At my quizzical look, he dutifully tugged a shoulder strap I hadn't seen and a camera emerged from behind his back.
In his memoirs, Israel Through My Lens, the dean of Israeli photo-journalists describes walking home camera-less one day in 1947 and witnessing a British Mandatory building being blown up by the Irgun. "Since then I have never left home, not even once, without taking my camera."
Cameras have been his third eye, perhaps his first, for 60 years. Today, at 83, he still ventures out with a camera every day, alive to the possibility that he may at any moment encounter a story - grim, grand or gorgeous - worth perpetuating.
With half a million photos dating from the eve of the state's creation - photographs taken for Time-Life, The Jerusalem Post and other foreign and Israeli publications - Rubinger and his cameras have constituted a mirror held up to the nation.
Like the Woody Allen character Zelig, Rubinger was waiting at virtually every turn in the road the Jewish state has taken. He staked out the beginning of the story with a photograph of Jerusalemites standing on a British armored car in November 1947 celebrating the UN partition decision.
From that point, Israel did not go to war without Rubinger at the battlefront, and it did not enter into peace agreements without his cameras recording the signing. As a journalist, he would stalk the corridors of the Knesset longer than any parliamentarian (except perhaps Shimon Peres), and he became the only news photographer permitted to take a camera with him at any time into the Holy of Holies - the Knesset dining room. (Candid shots by him taken over the years in the Knesset are on permanent display there.) He photographed Golda in her kitchen ("She did not make small talk with a mere photographer such as me"), and he captured Ben-Gurion in moments of off-guard serenity (smiling as he holds Helen Keller's hand) as well as statesmanlike sobriety. One of the photographs in the book shows Ben-Gurion and Ariel Sharon in a trench on the Bar-Lev Line during the War of Attrition surveying the Egyptian side of the Suez Canal. Sharon, with wind-blown hair, confident look and map in hand, appears ready to lead an army across.
Ben-Gurion, wearing a beret so that his distinctive shock of white hair did not draw the attention of Egyptian snipers, has a hand to his chin and a worried look, as if, knowing Sharon's mind, he is calculating the likely body count, human and political.
When archeologist Yigael Yadin, in a cave high on one of the cliff faces of the Judean Desert, uncovered finds from the Bar Kochba revolt 1,800 years before, Rubinger was there to record the scene. During the Yom Kippur War, he was in the helicopter bearing chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. David Elazar when it accidentally overflew Egyptian positions in Sinai and was hit by ground fire, barely escaping - but not before Rubinger shot back with his camera, capturing the Egyptian gunners below.
Not all his photo stories were the stuff of front-page headlines. In a Catholic hospice on the border separating Israeli and Jordanian Jerusalem in 1956, a patient leaning out of a window opened her mouth too wide and her false teeth fell into no-man's-land. An international search expedition was mounted, consisting of UN personnel carrying a white flag as well as Jordanian and Israeli soldiers who scoured the overgrown patch. Tipped off by an Israeli officer, Rubinger made his way there and got a picture of a beaming nun in white triumphantly holding aloft the dentures.
RUBINGER'S OWN life was part of the drama of the Jewish people in the 20th century that he so assiduously recorded. Born in Vienna in 1924, an only child, he ceased his formal education at 15 when the Anschluss led to Jewish children being expelled from Austrian schools. He joined a Zionist youth movement and sailed with a group for Palestine from Trieste two months after the war started. His father had managed to escape to England, but his mother died in the Holocaust.
He lived on a kibbutz for two years and then, at 18, joined the British army. He was serving with the Jewish Brigade in Europe when the war ended.
In Germany he bought his first camera, a Leica, for 200 cigarettes and a kilo of coffee. It was there that he met a first cousin, Anni, who with her mother had survived the death camps. As other brigade soldiers were doing with Jewish women, he entered into a fictitious marriage with Anni to expedite her emigration to Palestine. Before long, fiction turned to fact. They remained married for more than 50 years and had two children.
Rubinger fought in the War of Independence in Jerusalem, narrowly missing death near today's City Hall when two soldiers alongside him were killed. After the war, he opened a photography shop on King David Street and began trying to sell photos to newspapers. His big break came when Uri Avnery, who had established a mass circulation news magazine called Ha'olam Hazeh, offered him a job as a photojournalist in 1951. Two years later he joined Yediot Aharonot. In 1954, the Jerusalem correspondent of Time-Life asked him to photograph a story she was writing. Thus began an association that would last half a century with one of the most influential media outlets in the world.
In the 1970s, Rubinger joined The Jerusalem Post as picture editor, but he missed the action and returned to full-time photography after a year.
In photographing the famous, Rubinger would take note of their off-camera relations with their spouses. Affection between Sharon and his wife Lily was palpable - "a true love match." He also found relations between Henry Kissinger and Nancy very loving. By contrast, he describes a scene in the apartment of Yitzhak and Leah Rabin to which he had gone with a Time writer.
Rabin was sitting with his legs up on a chair talking with them when his whiskey glass ran dry.
"Leah, would you please pour me another one?" he asked. To which the prime minister's wife replied, "You've had enough. If you want another one, get it yourself."
We learn from Rubinger, incidentally, that Kissinger's suite at the King David did not have a balcony offering a grand view of the Old City, as was generally assumed. His suite had no balcony at all and no view of the Old City, perhaps a precaution against unfriendlies being tempted to take their chances sniping from the Old City wall. Ever resourceful, Rubinger persuaded the hotel to clear out a room with a balcony facing the Old City where he photographed the Kissingers, making sure he positioned Nancy, who normally towered over her husband, leaning on the balcony's balustrade so that she looked no taller than he.
In a remarkably frank account of his own "tempestuous" marriage, as he calls it, Rubinger notes that Anni's Holocaust experience led her to invest all her emotional energies in him without developing interests of her own. He freely admits finding outlets to this often suffocating relationship by having outside liaisons over the years. However, he faithfully nurtured Anni in her final years when she was stricken with cancer.
Two years after her death in 2000, true love came to him at 78 in the form of Ziona Spivak, a Yemenite-born Jerusalem widow who confirmed the old sayings he had heard about the magical quality of a Yekke-Yemenite match. The story had a tragic ending. Three years ago, he found her one day in her apartment with her throat slit, the victim of a former gardener from Hebron who had tried to extort money.
PHOTOGRAPHING Israeli-Palestinian confrontations, Rubinger saw himself as a neutral professional. But he makes no secret in his book of his antipathy towards some Israeli settlers. "I have found it extremely difficult to accept the manner in which some of the settlers, my fellow Jews, have treated the Palestinians." In this vein, he declares himself disillusioned with a one-time hero, Natan Sharansky, for being unable, regardless of his Zionist sympathies, to muster empathy for Palestinians who have been displaced.
Rubinger's success rested not only on artistic and technical abilities but on a journalist's skills - an instinct about where the story lay, the savvy to get to it even in difficult circumstances and the quick thinking needed to pick the moment and angle that best told the tale. He displayed all these attributes to obtain his most famous picture - the iconic portrait of paratroopers standing in front of the Western Wall in the Six Day War.
He was at El-Arish in Sinai with Maj.-Gen. Yisrael Tal's division when he heard rumors that something was about to happen in Jerusalem. Spotting a helicopter about to take off with wounded, he clambered aboard without asking anyone and squeezed himself in among the stretchers. The helicopter landed in Beersheba, where he happened to have left his car. He drove to Jerusalem, asking a hitchhiking soldier to take the wheel because he was exhausted from lack of sleep. In Jerusalem he made his way to the Old City, captured only hours before, and found the narrow alley in front of the Western Wall a chaotic scene of jubilation. He lay down amid the crush of people and shot upward to capture the soldiers' grizzled and reverential faces with the Wall in the background, a picture that would convey to the world the awesome nature of the victory.
A reputation for discretion - like avoiding embarrassing shots - together with an engaging personality gained him access and story tips over the years. "Because I demonstrate respect for my subjects, they reciprocate." Above all, however, it was his ever-youthful enthusiasm for his profession - "Every day has been different" - that won him the coveted Israel Prize 10 years ago.
President Shimon Peres writes in his foreword that David Rubinger has been "the photographer of the nation in the making." His photographs over the past six decades have indeed become part of our collective memory.
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