To thank a thief

Sitting down with famed photographer David Rubinger, who captured that immortal 1967 moment when the three paraptroopers gazed at the Western Wall in awe.

David Rubinger at home, flanked by some of his most iconic photos – including, of course, the June 7, 1967, shot of the three paratroopers at the newly liberated Western Wall (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
David Rubinger at home, flanked by some of his most iconic photos – including, of course, the June 7, 1967, shot of the three paratroopers at the newly liberated Western Wall
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
It is not often that one thanks a thief, but David Rubinger, who is arguably Israel’s most famous photographer and an Israel Prize laureate, offers his deep thanks to all the thieves who pirated his iconic photograph of the three paratroopers at the Western Wall, after it was recaptured by IDF forces in the Six Day War.
“That photo made Rubinger. Without it, I would not have won the Israel Prize,” he tells In Jerusalem.
Rubinger, who will turn 92 on June 24, has documented the history of Israel from before the declaration of the state to the present day. Many of his photographs grace the walls of the Knesset and of various national institutions.
Although he has taken numerous photographs which in his opinion are far better than the one he took on June 7, 1967, the one that has brought him renown and with which he is instantly identified with is indeed that photograph – featuring Zion Karasenti, Yitzhak Yifat and Haim Oshri, who were then all in their early 20s and who today are in their early 70s.
The irony is that 49 years ago, Rubinger didn’t think it was such a hot photo – and he still doesn’t think so. When he and his late wife Annie looked at the contact sheets, which is what photographers did in the pre-digital era of photography, Rubinger wanted to publish the photograph of Rabbi Shlomo Goren, then IDF chief rabbi, hoisted on the shoulders of jubilant soldiers and waving a shofar, but Annie preferred the photograph of the three young paratroopers.
“She was right and I was wrong,” says Rubinger with hindsight.
Like several other photographers, Rubinger – who was a longtime photographer for Time magazine – had an unwritten agreement with the IDF that allowed him freedom of movement among the troops, providing he gave the army prints of some of the photos he shot.
Rubinger didn’t spend much time on that iconic photo.
To get a long shot of the majesty of the Western Wall, he lay down on the ground. The three weary paratroopers were just standing there, unaware of the fact that he shot three frames of them. He was so focused on photographing Goren he didn’t even think about the three young men.
After returning home, he duly prepared a set of prints for the IDF, which in turn passed them on to the Government Press Office, which made dozens of copies of the photograph with the three paratroopers and sold them for 2.50 lira each. (To get an idea of the price, the rate of exchange in relation to the US dollar at the time was more or less the same as the shekel rate today.) There were several unscrupulous photographers who purchased a copy of the photograph, put their own stamp on it and sent it off to the overseas publication for which they worked. What rankled most was that the Associated Press published a book with the photograph on the cover.
Rubinger still hasn’t gotten over that one.
He had many court cases against individuals and news organizations that only not plagiarized but pilfered his work.
At one stage, the late justice Mishael Cheshin wrote to him suggesting he desist because the photograph in question was a national treasure. Rubinger sent off a reply asking whether this meant he was free to sell discs of Jerusalem of Gold, because that, too, was a national treasure.
Cheshin apologized, saying that what he meant was that the photograph had become so important as to be a national treasure. His remarks had been intended as a compliment, he said.
Rubinger’s home has many photographs on the walls, and one day when a repairman came and looked around, and recognized the iconic photograph, he got excited. His joy knew no bounds when Rubinger told him he was the photographer. The repairman was so overcome that he didn’t want to take any money for his work, but Rubinger insisted on paying him.
“Icons are not made by the photographer – they’re made by the public,” insists Rubinger, explaining that just as in a Rorschach test, people see what they want to see.
“Ask any 10 people in Jerusalem about what moves them in the photograph,” he challenges, “and nearly all of them will tell you that it’s the paratrooper crying at the Wall.”
The fact is that he wasn’t crying, says Rubinger, but people like to believe he was because they want to feel the emotion they think he must have felt on reaching the Kotel.
Neither Rubinger nor the three former paratroopers can ever escape the drama conveyed by the photograph. They are asked at least two or three times every year to reconstruct the scene, which is somewhat bizarre, given that they are no longer young and don’t bear much resemblance to their former selves.
When such a request was received from a TV channel a couple of years back, the quartet, including Rubinger, went back to the Wall, whose broad, paved plaza looks nothing like the rubble that confronted them in 1967.
Rubinger was asked to lie down in the same position that he took in order to photograph the full height of the Wall.
He protested that he was 90 and couldn’t do it anymore, but the television crew was adamant on getting the scene exactly right. So a reluctant Rubinger acceded and positioned himself on the ground with great discomfort. It later took two men to haul him back onto his feet.
More recently, he and the three subjects of the photograph were invited to party at the Tel Aviv Museum celebrating the 92nd birthday of billionaire Meshulam Riklis, who also wanted to see the reenactment of the photo at the Kotel. They were in Tel Aviv, not Jerusalem, and instead of the plaza, they had a stage. yet they did it anyway.
While acknowledging that every photographer must have some talent, Rubinger firmly believes that luck plays a far greater role than talent in people’s career successes.
“There are much better photographers than I am,” he says without the slightest hint of false modesty.
Even the fact that Rubinger was in Jerusalem that day in 1967 was a matter of luck. He had been with troops near the Egyptian border and had heard the word “Jerusalem” over and over on the communications system. He had an inkling that something of historic significance was about to take place there, so when a helicopter came to take wounded soldiers to Beersheba, Rubinger jumped on board.
He had left his car in Beersheba and drove from there to Jerusalem, stopping momentarily to see his family before heading for the Old City… and all the rest was captured in his camera’s lens.