Text/Context, July 2009: Fighting Shots

Born in Vienna in 1924, Rubinger, an only child, made his way to Palestine in 1939 with a Jewish youth group, leaving his parents behind. (His mother was later killed in a Nazi death camp in Belarus.
His father, imprisoned in Dachau and Buchenwald in the early days of the war, escaped to England and survived.) During the war Rubinger joined the Jewish Brigade of the British Army, and while he was stationed in Paris a French girlfriend gave him his first camera. As a member of the Haganah, he fought in the 1948 Battle of Jerusalem, but that was the end of his military career. “I laid down my gun and picked up the camera,” writes Rubinger. “I have been through seven more wars. I have always continued to shoot, but only through a lens.”

Text/Context: Photographs can have a tremendous influence on popular opinion. During the Vietnam War, for example, daily photos of dead soldiers helped turn the tide of American public opinion against the war. Do you see any parallels in Israel, of photos changing opinions?

RUBINGER: No, to my great sorrow — not enough. I wish it had more. I think, in the United States, it carries much more influence. In Israel, it’s only fleeting. You see, the Israeli electoral system is different from the Americans’. It’s not so much dependent on public opinion.

Was your work ever censored by the Israeli government?

No, there was no censorship. Nobody dared to censor me, because it’s my opinion that coming to truth is always the best, that you serve your country best by telling the truth, even if it’s not palatable.

But that’s your opinion — and one not necessarily shared by those who might censor you.
True. But I had good relations even with people I opposed politically. When [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon’s aides wanted him not to speak about sensitive election strategy in my presence, Sharon replied, “I trust Rubinger even though I know he doesn’t vote for me.” I have an excellent relationship with [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, even though I’m totally opposed to anything he stands for. Now [Prime Minister Menachem] Begin, he was just uptight in general.

Do you see yourself as a Zionist photographer or —

I am not a Zionist photographer, I’m not an Israeli photographer. I’m a photojournalist. I’m a photographer who happens to be an Israeli. I am not a propagandist for the Israeli government, for its policies. I will try to praise the government or anybody if they do something I think is right, and I will attack and portray in a negative light anything that I think is wrong.

There are those rumors about you working for the Mossad —

[Laughs] No, I was never approached by them.

But if you had, you wouldn’t say, right?

Not true. The people who reach my age who were in the Mossad, they’re all now quite proud of it.

Arnold Drapkin, Time’s photo editor, said to you that “photos are the first draft of history.” Do you think that some of your photos might be viewed by history as an illustration of Israeli arrogance? That later drafts of history might radically amend your first draft? I’m thinking in particular about the shot you took in 1973 of the Phantom jets flying over the Temple Mount.

Of course, of course; that’s how it goes. I just portrayed the fact. How that fact is viewed in the future depends on future generations. A photograph is a truth, it’s nothing but the truth — but, by God, it’s not all the truth.

But that photo with the Phantoms was set up, posed, by you [for the back cover of Time, on the occasion of Israel’s 25th anniversary]. If it was a truth of the moment, it was one that you were constructing.

Oh, of course it was a setup! You couldn’t just take a picture like that; you have to plan it very carefully. We had to take that one over a few times.

That’s my point. Looking back on it, do you feel that showing Israeli jets — with their Star of David insignia on clear display — streaking over the Temple Mount/Haram Al-Sharif was provocative, given the deep religious symbolism of the spot to Muslims? Isn’t that what later drafts of history might say? It’s not an accident that this photo was used by the Israeli Air Force for recruitment purposes.

This was 1973, before the Yom Kippur War. It was long before the Palestinian uprising. No I don’t think that in the least it had any feeling of, what do you call it, arrogance? It was a show of true might. Israel has never been ashamed of having a good army. I tell you, if it wasn’t for them having a good army, I wouldn’t be speaking to you today. I wouldn’t be here.

I’ll put it this way: It’s true that victory has been the greatest disaster that could befall Israel. Except for one: losing. The feeling was not of arrogance but having been delivered from death.

You took your signature image, a photograph of three paratroopers in front of the Western Wall, during the 1967 war, minutes after the soldiers had reached the Wall for the first time. You’ve mentioned that it’s not, from a technical perspective, a good photo, that its popularity was and is due to the strong emotions it elicits.

I think that’s true of many iconic photographs. As a photograph — purely as a photograph — it is flawed. There are faces cut off. There’s some guy peeking over the shoulders. A good photograph, from an artistic point of view, is one where there is not one nonessential part in it.

A photo that I consider one of my best black-and-white pictures is where [Egyptian President] Anwar Sadat is whispering into Begin’s ear. There is not one element in that photograph that you could take out and not disturb the photograph. Now, in the picture of the three soldiers that is not true. It became an icon because of what people felt about it.

Icons are not made by the photographer, but by the viewer. Therefore in Israel you find many people who refer to that picture, as the “crying soldiers in front of ...” No, they’re not crying. But the public creates the icon; the photographer just shoots the picture.

What was it like revisiting your past to write this book?

So many things came back to me, things I hadn’t thought about for a very long time. When I thought about it — really thought about it — I realized that I never properly said goodbye to my mother [after leaving Vienna in 1939]. I was so excited, the youngsters and I. We were a group of young people, pioneers going to Palestine. We met at the train station . . . and when I thought about it, I realized, “Good God! I disregarded my mother! I never said goodbye.” I want to remember that I hugged her. But I have to be honest with myself: I didn’t. It’s a feeling of terrible guilt. You don’t escape that.

--Avi Steinberg is a writer living in Jerusalem. Reprinted from Nextbook.org, a new read on Jewish culture.