Photographer didn't like the picture which made his name

NATIONAL TREASURE: David Rubinger with his iconic 1967 photograph at the Kotel


ISRAELI photographer David Rubinger thanks everyone 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 said proudly.

Rubinger, who turns 92 today, 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 various national institutions.

Although he has taken numerous photographs, the one that has brought him most renown is indeed that photograph from June 7, 1967 - featuring Zion Karasenti, Yitzhak Yifat and Haim Oshri, who were then all in their early 20s.

The irony is that 49 years ago, Vienna-born Rubinger didn't think it was such a hot photo - and he still doesn't.

When he and his late wife, Annie, looked at the contact sheets, 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.

Rubinger - a 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 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.

There were several unscrupulous photographers who purchased the photograph, put their own stamp on it and sent it to overseas publications. What rankled most was that the Associated Press published a book with the photograph on the cover.

Rubinger still hasn't got over that one.

He had many court cases against individuals and news organisations that not only plagiarised 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 copies of Jerusalem of Gold because that, too, was a national treasure.

Cheshin apologised, 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 recognised 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.

When such a request was received from a TV channel a couple of years back, the quartet, including Rubinger, went back to the Kotel.

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.

A reluctant Rubinger positioned himself on the ground in great discomfort.

It took two men to haul him back to his feet.

More recently, he and the three subjects of the photograph were invited to a party at the Tel Aviv Museum celebrating the 92nd birthday of billionaire Meshulam Riklis, who also wanted to see the re-enactment 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.

Rubinger, an only child in Vienna, escaped to then-Palestine after Nazi Germany annexed Austria in the Anschluss. He settled on a Jordan Valley kibbutz.

His father had already fled to England, but his mother died in the Holocaust.

He served with the Jewish Brigade of the British Army during the Second World War.

While on leave in Paris, a French girlfriend gave him a camera as a present.

His first professional photo was of Jewish youths climbing on a British tank to celebrate the creation of Israel.

He met Annie during a visit to relatives in Germany. He offered to marry her so she could emigrate to then-Palestine - the marriage lasted more than 50 years until her death from cancer.

After working for various Israeli newspapers, Rubinger joined Time-Life, for whom he worked for more than 50 years.

In 1997, he became the first photographer to receive the Israel Prize.

In his autobiography, Israel Through My Lens, Rubinger revealed he had numerous affairs.

After her death, the father-of-two met Yemenite immigrant Ziona Spivak.

But tragedy struck when she was murdered by her former gardener in 2004.

© 2016 Jewish Telegraph