J'lem Day interview with photographer Rubinger

Photojournalist David Rubinger remains as opinionated about his city’s future as he is active with his camera.

Photojournalist David Rubinger 370 (photo credit: The Media Line)
Photojournalist David Rubinger 370
(photo credit: The Media Line)
Photojournalist David Rubinger has been described as “the common thread” – the link between events collectively comprising the history of the modern state of Israel. Long before Rubinger shot the iconic classic of three soldiers, faces apparently awash in awesome amazement as they gazed upon the just-liberated Western Wall during the 1967 war, the Vienna-native-turned-Jerusalemite was the proverbial “fly on the wall” in meetings between Israel’s founding fathers and the world leaders who came to visit. From Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, to Menachem Begin in his role as host for the historic visit of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat; each and every personage for more than six decades was chronicled through the lens of David Rubinger. His photos were often the image of the Jewish state that the world would see through its publication in Time-Life publications, his employer for more than 50 years.
On the eve of Jerusalem Day 2012, Rubinger remains as vocal and opinionated about his city and the country’s future as he is active with his camera. He hosted The Media Line’s Felice Friedson at his Jerusalem home:
TML:   David, you chronicled the history of the state of Israel since its inception, armed with a camera since 1945. Were you taking photos, creating pictures or recording history?
Rubinger:   I did? I didn’t know I was recording history when I did it, but in turns out in retrospect that I did. At the time, I was just taking pictures.
TML:  What was in your mind in the early years when you began to capture everything around you?
Rubinger:  What I imagine was with the journalist’s mind; I thought, “Good God, I missed it!”  Actually, I’ve lived all my professional life with a feeling that if I couldn’t be there, it couldn’t happen. The last few years I’ve found out that things happen without me, too.
TML:  History and hindsight are often mentioned together. Do you ever feel that as someone who was there and documented history that the public debate is just not correct?
Rubinger:  Oh, there’s a lot of show business in politics. And in diplomacy. And of course, after a while you realize that what you see is not the truth.
TML:  Could you give me an example?
Rubinger:  Well, the most famous shot of all was, “Can we have another handshake, please?” And two presidents, two heads of state, shake hands, don’t look into each others’ eyes, but put an idiotic smile on their faces and look into the camera: That’s show business! There’s nothing to it about how they feel about each other at all.
TML:   During Israel’s War of Independence, you commanded a platoon in Jerusalem. You were part of the struggle for the city that was pulled at from several directions. Has the way you view Jerusalem changed over the past sixty-four years?
Rubinger:  It changed in ’67. It became from a small, intimate town a place riddled with problems between Jews and Arabs; among Jews themselves (the Orthodox)…It’s not the same Jerusalem. It’s not the old feeling we had about Jerusalem. I mean, I could walk up Ben Yehuda street in the olden days…it took me about half an hour to get through Ben Yehuda street because there were so many people I met whom I knew. It’s all gone. It’s all over.
TML:   Do you think it could come back?
Rubinger:   No. Youth doesn’t come back, as I can tell you from my own experience. And the past doesn’t come back. It never comes back. And if it comes back, it looks awful.
TML:  What needs to change?
Rubinger:  I think ’67, like in many other things, was the watershed in the whole existence of Israel. A watershed in military sense, and a social sense:  everything. My sad feeling about Zionism, having come here as a kid at the age of 15 – a REAL Zionist, full of idealism, is that I think Zionism over the years has been overtaken and vanquished by the Galut (Diaspora). The “Diaspora spirit” has overpowered the Israeli spirit. It began when it was still Palestine, you know, with the first settlers here, and the whole Zionist endeavor from the beginning of the 20th Century till 1967 … After ’67 again, it’s the watershed. The Diaspora spirit became all-powerful: where “everybody hates us,”;  “anybody who doesn’t agree with us is an anti-Semite”; "Arafat is Hitler"; and "the Intifada is Auschwitz" -- it’s the Galut; the Diaspora spirit. Unfortunately, we thought we were getting rid of the feeling of a slave; we became masters, but the feeling – the spirit -- of slaves [remains].
TML:   David Rubinger, more than anyone over the past six decades, was that proverbial “fly on the wall.” You heard so many personal comments among world leaders. What was the one you wished you could have told?
Rubinger:   I could have told or could have heard?
TML:   Maybe both.
Rubinger:   I don’t think I heard any secrets, but I heard little things that if published would have made a row; like what Paula Ben Gurion had to say about members of Ben Gurion’s cabinet – which I didn’t repeat.  Actually, I was asked sometimes by my editors at TIME, when they were not at the meeting and I was there, “What did they say?” And I had to confess that I didn’t hear. When you’re so concentrated on shooting pictures and on the visual, I think they could have discussed top secrets and I would not have heard them. Sometimes I was lucky; sometimes I came back from a story with the lead ... I didn’t get the lead, but the lead was what I had told the correspondent. I remember there was one case where I got a message from New York congratulating me that I had brought in something. I know it happened, but I don’t remember what the occasion was.
TML:   The wall in your living room deserves museum status. It depicts David Rubinger as subject as well as photographer, sitting with some of history’s great names. Who, among the great leaders, would you say epitomized humility?
Rubinger:   Well, first of all, it’s not my living room, it’s my study. In the living room, my late wife did not allow me to hang a photograph. It was only art. In my study, I was allowed to hang [photographs].  Who among the great leaders? Whom I got along best with? Funny, it was Ariel Sharon. Who I regarded as the greatest leader was, of course, Ben Gurion. But I didn’t have close contact with him. At that time I was green. I remember my knees shook when I first entered his office. But then, whom I had high respect for, was Begin – because he was honest, true to his beliefs; a real democrat. And a gentleman. A Polish gentleman, not an Israeli gentleman. But with Sharon I have one example which tells [the story]. I once was in a meeting when some delicate things were discussed, one of his aides spoke up and said, “Arik, we can’t speak openly here,” pointing at me. Arik looked up and said, “Oh, I know David; I trust him. I know he doesn’t vote for me.” And that was Arik Sharon. For that, I respected him very much and I felt welcome in his home.
TML:  Looking at the young leaders, the rising leaders today, is there someone you would point to that has tremendous potential toward the future?
Rubinger:  Sadly, no. I don’t see anyone.
TML:  So David, what’s missing?
Rubinger:  Maybe what’s missing is not missing. That is, people at my age normally become nostalgic and think the past was always greater than the present. That’s probably a feature in the human nature that you can’t change. I think what’s missing are people who are thinking in wide and great terms. Statesman-like terms. I think what we are missing is that we don’t have a single statesman among all our politicians. They are all politicians, not a single statesman. A statesman is one who says, like Ben Gurion, “This is where we have to go. You don’t want to come with me? I’m going home. Look for another leader.” A politician is one who says, “We have to go here. What do you think, no? You don’t think we should go there? What do you think? What do you think? Hey, let’s go this way.”  That’s what we have. We don’t have statesmen.  The world is lacking statesmen to a great extent. But there are some. There is Merkel, there is Obama, who are statesmen. But Israel hasn’t had a statesman since Begin. He was a statesman. He realized that there are greater things at the moment. He, who said, “I will not leave one inch of Sinai; I will not take one settlement down.” He did it when he realized it was for the good of the state of Israel. A politician can’t do that. He says, “Oh my God, if I remove one settlement I’ll lose my seat as prime minister.”
TML:  David, you proudly stated, “I’m a leftist but I voted for Bibi Netanyahu for the prime minister of Israel.”  Why?
Rubinger:   Well, it takes a right wing leader to do the things that the right wing doesn’t want to do. I think to take an example from the world, it’s a well-known example: I don’t think anyone but Nixon could have made the opening to China. But here, again say it, can you imagine what would have happened if Peres had been prime minister and had evacuated all the Jews out of Gaza? There would be blood flowing in the streets. Sharon did it and there was nothing; there was not even one big demonstration. I mean people put little pieces of orange cloth on the antennas of their cars, but that was all. Therefore, it takes a right winger. I once said to one of the [left wing] Meretz leaders who told me “I heard you voted for Netanyahu. How could you do it?” I said, “Look, you and I – we want to, but we can’t. Bibi doesn’t want to. But if someone will force him to, he can.”
TML:  It’s years that the Israelis and Palestinians have been meeting; leaders have been meeting. Nothing has really moved. Have things gone backwards?
Rubinger:  They have not gone backwards…We have leadership today that has come to the conclusion that terror is not the way to achieve, which is a great thing that we all should have grabbed with both hands, instead of which it’s been neglected: “We have no terror, why should we talk? And if we talk, what should we talk about? We have nothing to talk about!”  It’s very convenient because the population is happy, there’s no terror. He [Netanyahu] takes the credit for it. He says, “It’s me. I’m in power, therefore there’s no terror, therefore I take credit for it.”  It’s not true. There’s no terror because the Palestinians have come to the conclusion that they achieve much much more…Look at all their achievements. The whole world is with them. Without one suicide bomber. With the first suicide bomber, the whole achievement would have gone down the drain. They have learned that. Abu Mazen (Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas) controls. And if there is no suicide bombing it’s only because there’s cooperation between the Israeli security service and the Palestinian security service. It works for the benefit of both sides. I have friends who are Palestinians who told me, “We don’t want a state. What do we need a state for? Let this go on quietly, we won’t do one act of terror. In a few years, the world will say, ‘There are ten million people between the sea and the river. How come that three million have no rights? How can that be?’” What’s Israel going to say then? No, it’s like South Africa? We have seven million first rate citizens and three million who are just…Palestinians. So some of the Palestinians have come to the conclusion if they wait long enough it’s going to become a bi-national state. And they’ll achieve what they want.
TML:  Let’s take a moment to go back to your own personal history – coming as a young boy to Israel and then moving into Jerusalem in the ‘50s.
Rubinger:  I was three years on a kibbutz. I arrived in Israel at the age of 15 and when I became 18 I did what every Jewish boy was supposed to do: join the British army and fight against the Nazis. And I did. So I came back only when I was over 22; when I came back from the British army from the campaign in North Africa, Malta, Italy, and Europe. I came back and then settled in Jerusalem. So actually, I settled in Jerusalem only at the very end of 1946. I got married abroad. Fictitiously. I married a Jewish girl who was a survivor of a death camp. She and her mother had survived. I married her in order to bring her to Israel. There’s a famous scene in a documentary that was shot about this where the interviewer asks me, “I just heard your marriage to Anni, to whom you were married for 54 years, was a fictitious one. How long did it take before it became a ‘real’ marriage?”  Oh, I said, “I think about two or three weeks.” Where upon Anni, on screen, turns to me and says, “Liar! Two nights!”  We lived to be married 54 years and she lived to see great-grandchildren. She died in 2000. That’s now nearly 12 years ago.
TML:  And how many children?
Rubinger:   We have two children, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
TML:  Later on, you had another ‘love of your life,’ a very sad story…
Rubinger:  She was murdered by the gardener. It bothers me every time I say “She was murdered by the gardener” that people jump up and say, “Of course, an Arab!” As if we were lacking Jewish murderers. He murdered her because…he was a very simple person. He just wanted money from her and she didn’t want to give it and he grabbed a knife in the kitchen and murdered her. So all those people who tried to put political motives into it…..It was sad because we had met two years after my wife died; she was a widow; and we had the kind of marvelous relationship that has several conditions: a) we didn’t live in the same house, we didn’t live together; b) I was nearly 78 and she was in her late 60s. You’re ripe at that time. You’re not trying to change the other one into your image. You know that the other one is another person. And you are another person. And that’s the way…In two and a half years there was not one word of anger ever spoken between us. It’s something. I can’t say that about my marriage, of course. 54 years…ups and downs…a good marriage. A happy marriage. But 54 years, it’s not the two and a half years I had with Tziona…totally without anger…like only older people can be, shall we say, “wise enough?”
TML:  I’ve known you a long time, David, and I’ve never seen you without your camera. As the city of Jerusalem evolves, and attempts are made to modernize the Old City, what’s your sense of the quality of aesthetic values being applied?
Rubinger:   Well, my aesthetics have to do with landscape and beauty. In the exhibition I had, there was one picture without a human being. Normally, I concentrate on human beings. Then it’s not the aesthetic expression – it’s the event; the reaction of the human being to the event that counts for me. I’m not looking for art in pictures; I’m not an artist. I think a photojournalist mustn’t be an artist because an artist first has an idea which he translates either into a play, a book, an opera, a concerto: but the idea was there first. An art photographer; a fashion photographer must have an idea first which he then translates. If I have an idea first, then I’m sinning against my profession. Because then I start posing in order to translate my idea into a photograph. I must shy away from that. I’m always saying “photojournalists are not artists.” Maybe they have a good eye; they have a good sense of where to go, where to be, where not to be. But they are not artists, because an artist has an idea which translates into a work. A photojournalist must not have an idea before he takes his picture. Reality must dominate what he does.
TML:   What is David Rubinger’s prediction for the future of Jerusalem?
Rubinger: I was once asked on a radio program -- on a Jerusalem Day -- someone called me to interview me; to speak about the united Jerusalem. I said, “Baloney, Jerusalem is not united.” Jerusalem will be united when it’s divided again. Not divided by a wall or by barbed wire, but divided in the sense that both Palestinians and Israelis will feel that it’s their home. In other words, divided like in an apartment building that’s divided into flats. You don’t walk into the other guy’s flat without knocking. But you’re still living in the same building. And you’re still taking care that the building should be clean. And that everything should work in that building. That’s the way I want to see Jerusalem. The capital of two nations which is run together as a unit but with each one being his own “ba’al habayit”, his own “owner.”
TML:   You don’t see Israel having its own capital?
Rubinger:   What do you mean “own capital?” Show me in the Bible where it says [the Arab neighborhood of] Shuafat was part of the holy city. Baloney. Bullshit. There are parts of Jerusalem that are not the holy city.  The Temple Mount – okay, I think some arrangement will have to be found for it. And with a little bit of good will, if all the other things are settled, this should be the least problem. Because it’s religious – it’s only a question of respecting each other’s beliefs and it should not be political. It’s a political problem, as long as the other problems are not solved.
TML:  Do you think the future of the Israelis and Palestinians should be settled by the Israelis and Palestinians or do you feel it should be settled among Israel and the rest of the Arab world?
Rubinger:   I think between Israel and the Palestinians. The other things will fall into place. They are already on the way to: the Saudi Arabian plan was a very good plan and if it had been accepted by now… But then everyone makes mistakes…The Palestinians are not to be excused for not having made mistakes; they made their own mistakes. I’m looking back to Camp David when Begin…it cost him blood. But he finally signed the autonomy for Palestinians. If Arafat had been wise, he would have said, “Autonomy? Great, I’m taking it with both hands! Wonderful! I’m taking autonomy.”  How long would take him for autonomy to turn into a state?  A year? Two? Not more. So he made mistakes, too. The Palestinians made their own mistakes but the problem now is that both sides are so deep into their own mistakes that it will take a third party to come to it themselves. That’s why I pin my hopes on an outside power. You know who that outside power is? Obama. Only if a president will finally say to both sides, “You come to terms and settle it or I wash my hands of both of you! No funds, no money, no F-16s. No nothing.”
TML:  Do you think there’s a sense of pride lacking in the youth of Israel today? A lack of pride in country? A lack of pride in Jerusalem, for example?
Rubinger:    Yes. You can be proud…it takes achievement to produce pride. I see no achievement. As it looks now, I see no light at the end of the tunnel. I hear people speaking about “The Arabs will never accept us here; we’ll have to live on our sword forever.”  Nobody lives on his sword forever. The Bible says, “He who lives on the sword, dies on the sword.”
TML:  David Rubinger, thank you very much for your historic recollections of Israel past and Israel present.
Rubinger:  Thank you, Felice.