Celebrating in black and white

The "photographer of the nation in the making" showcases the spirit of Jerusalem Day.

DAVID RUBINGER_370 (photo credit: Elisabeth Heinemann)
(photo credit: Elisabeth Heinemann)
Aside from the marches, concerts and the official ceremonies on TV, Jerusalem Day is a time for remembering ourselves and our state – its capital, its stories and its history. Nations, much like the people who reside in them, have their own defining moments, and in this regard, Israel is no exception.
Yet with the passing of time, the memories of Israel’s youth have faded. Thankfully there have been those who capture the moments on film. These photos remind us of who Israelis, as a collective, once were, and the stories inherent in these photos tell us what it means to be Israeli.
But sometimes these images are not enough, and there is a need for the story behind the scenes – one provided by those who, like David Rubinger, stood behind the lens.
Rubinger’s story as a photojournalist – one whom President Shimon Peres would later laud as “the photographer of the nation in the making” – began like film-noir pulp fiction. A soldier in the Jewish brigade stationed in 1945 Paris, Rubinger went AWOL to spend some time with a beautiful blonde by the characteristically French name of Claudette. It was she who gave him his first camera, sparking his lifelong passion for photography. A year later, he bought a Leica camera for 200 cigarettes and a kilogram of coffee.
After returning to the soon-to-be State of Israel, Rubinger, who would later become the first photographer to win the Israel Prize, took his first professional photo – that of Jewish young men climbing on top of a British tank to celebrate the UN vote in favor of the 1947 partition plan, which in essence recognized a Jewish state in the Middle East.
“‘A Hebrew state! A Hebrew state!’ they shouted and waved homemade [Israeli] flags,” the photographer recalls. “I went down for a pack of Empire cigarettes. The man behind the counter hands me them, then says, ‘Tonight, I’m not taking any money.’”
The War of Independence dampened that sense of euphoria, but in subsequent years, the celebrations continued. Rubinger captured that spirit of Independence Day in the years following 1948, when the Jewish jeu de vie over the newfound nation was still fresh. His photos of people dancing in the streets exemplifies the raw, uninhibited happiness of the nation’s early years, the heartfelt appreciation of independence among those who fought for it.
But the spirit of the Jewish state evolved in the wake of the Six Day War, after it survived a national near-death experience and reunified its capital. Rubinger’s images of tanks driving through the Old City a year later, in 1968, convey the collective spirit of a people coming together. This was, in fact, the first time that Israeli tanks were allowed into east Jerusalem. As part of the UN agreement following the Six Day War, tanks were barred from Independence Day ceremonies in Jerusalem that year. But this fact did not stop some people: In a moment of chuzpah, a trait that has become an Israeli hallmark, students made cardboard tanks to march through the Old City, just to disregard the UN ruling as far as they could.
Rubinger’s photo of three soldiers at the Western Wall after it came under Israel’s control during the 1967 war has become iconic as an image of the country’s history and of Jerusalem itself.
“It was an unthinkable moment,” says the photographer. “[Before then,] it was easier to get to the moon than to get to the Old City.”
That photo of a nation celebrating itself and its victory in Jerusalem presents the spirit of Independence Day, rather than the emotions of war. But the exuberance of existence prevalent in the moment of that photo couldn’t last forever, says Rubinger. Over time, the festive atmosphere wore off.
“We can’t expect childhood forever,” he notes. “The feeling of success, of building a nation, the feeling of longing, all of it done with love and dedication [that was present after 1948,] was lost in the three weeks before [the war in] ’67. We lost our idealism.”
Although he has had the privilege of recording some of the pivotal events and personages in the history of the state, he says it is difficult for him to define any one of those experiences as the one that best represented Israel. However, on a personal level, he easily gives his most memorable moments: His first sight of the Holy Land from the boat on his way to making aliya, his experience at the Western Wall plaza during the 1967 war, and the feeling of looking down a 600- mm. lens at the sight of Egypt’s then-president Anwar Sadat saluting an Israeli flag in 1977.
An outstanding photo, says Rubinger, is one that only has the essentials, one that has no unnecessary elements or pieces to clutter up the shot. His photo of an Independence Day in 1971 bears this hallmark. In the frame, two soldiers stand at attention – one a veteran and the other a member of Gadna, the program designed to prepare youth for enlisting and serving in the army. In displaying the pride in and respect for the IDF, the image presents the military side of Independence Day and the pivotal role the armed forces play in defining both the country’s history and its society, then as well as now.
But the image represents another dynamic in the photographer’s worldview, that of creating personal connections. Over the years, he took shots of many national movers and shakers, having been allowed access to them in private moments and settings away from the glaring eyes of the public. But he credits his success in part to the personal relationships with them.
“You have to find the intimacy in a moment,” he says. “The best photographers are whose who can connect with people and build human relationships with them.”
It is that mentality that characterizes both his perception of Israel through the years and the way he celebrates Independence Day or Jerusalem Day.
“Every year, I meet up with the rest of the altecockers and old-timers just to talk about the good ole’ days. There’s less of us each year, but that’s how we celebrate, reminiscing with all our friends.”
It’s a message any Israeli can take to heart, a message that leaps out of the photo of that celebration from the founding years of the state: The spirit of Israel’s national holidays, whether they mark the nation’s independence or the unification of its capital, isn’t in military parades or state ceremonies.
It’s in celebrating life – our own lives no less than the life of the state – with those who make that life worth living. In a sense, it’s about coming home, as individuals to our families, or as a nation to Jerusalem and the Land of Israel.