Israel’s “Family Photographer” and His Heirs

March 9 2017

Last week the Israeli photographer David Rubinger—most famous for his picture of Israeli paratroopers standing at the Western Wall in 1967—died at the age of ninety-two. Amnon Lord reflects on his work and his place in the history of Israeli photography, and laments the absence of photographers who can fill his shoes:

David Rubinger was in effect Israel’s family photographer. . . . [His] photos reveal first and foremost that Israel is a huge story. Images talk. . . .

Rubinger took the photographs that chronicle the country’s story. One picture, taken in Beirut, shows that he wasn’t afraid to get close to the thick of the fighting, but he didn’t produce amazing war photographs. Even his most famous picture, of the paratroopers at the Wall, has something staged to it. It’s not staged in the sense that the photographer brought soldiers (or models dressed as soldiers) and placed them next to the Western Wall after the fact and had them stand at the desired angle. Rubinger’s picture is in the right place, in the field, and at the moment of truth of Israeli history. But he still placed the soldiers. . . .

But since the 1980s, it’s harder and harder to find a winning image—a visual image from a seminal event. . . . The visual digital explosion of the past few decades blurs everything, including the names of the photographers—and the events themselves. Among the flat sea of photographers, only one stands out in recent years: Miri Tzaḥi. . . . Tzaḥi knew how to connect with the disengagement from Gaza and other events full of national pathos, which other photographers missed.

 


David Rubinger Documented Israel’s Great Story

This piece was first published on the Hebrew-language website Mida on March 4, 2017 rendered into English by Avi Woolf, and republished here with permission. The original article, complete with photographs, can be found by clicking on the link at the bottom of this page.

Photographer David Rubinger, who passed away at the age of ninety-two, was one of a series of photographers whose pictures were seared into national and global memory. Against the background of the visual explosion of the digital age, they particularly stand out.

David Rubinger was in effect Israel’s family photographer. His death allows us to stop for a moment and ponder the great photographers whose work captured the state of Israel over the years. Rubinger’s photos reveal first and foremost that Israel is a huge story. Images talk. Great photographers were here, saw, and took pictures, and the images they brought from the Israeli area were burned in the collective memory — not just Israeli, but international as well. I don’t want to compare the pictures of our lives to those of other peoples, some of whom are our neighbors, but ours is bigger. The story, I mean.

Rubinger took the photographs that chronicle the country’s story. One picture, taken in Beirut, shows that he wasn’t afraid to get close to the thick of the fighting, but he didn’t produce amazing war photographs. Even his most famous picture, of the paratroopers at the Wall, has something staged to it. It’s not staged in the sense that the photographer brought soldiers (or models dressed as soldiers) and placed them next to the Western Wall after the fact and had them stand at the desired angle. Rubinger’s picture is in the right place, in the field, and at the moment of truth of Israeli history. But he still placed the soldiers. I mention this because many years later I saw an authentic picture taken by one of the soldiers from the first battalion who arrived at the Wall, in which you can see the battalion commander, Uzi Eilam blowing the shofar, with his deputy Dan Ziv alongside him, with the IDF’s then-chief rabbi Shlomo Goren off to the side. The photo is straight and reflects the real situation at the Wall when the paratroopers arrived, absent the heavy pathos of a Rubinger photo.

One of those who put Israel on the photographic map was Robert Capa, who has no equal or superior. The famous photo of the ship Altalena burning before Tel Aviv’s beaches is his. The same is true of some of the burning images of the neglect in the shanty towns in the early days of mass immigration at the beginning of the 1950s. Afterwards, Capa moved on to the First Indochina War, where he met his death in 1954.

The man who first brought the people of Israel authentic images from the battlefields of the reprisal raids [against guerrilla attacks from Israel’s neighbors in the 1950s and 1960s] and the 1956 Sinai Campaign was Avraham Vered, a photographer for the magazine Bamaḥaneh (the IDF equivalent of Stars and Stripes). We see Ariel Sharon, the celebrated commando Meir Har-Zion (whom Moshe Dayan called “the best soldier ever to emerge in the IDF”), and their comrades in the 1950s actions in the way that Vered made us see them. It’s as if already he expected that they and their friends would be etched in national memory as heroes. The camera was attracted to them even before the creators of the late-1960s mythologies revealed their dictated exploits. In the end, Avraham Vered’s powerful image is that Meir Har Tzion lying badly wounded in the hospital with tubes coming out of his body, after the Khirbet al-Rahwa raid of 1956.

Micha Bar-am, if not quite the antithesis of Rubinger, is certainly no family photographer. He may not have photographed Menachem Begin help his wife Aliza put on her shoe like Cinderella—as Rubinger did in another iconic shot—but who could present something which would be the equal of the photo in which IDF soldiers can be seen taking cover along with their Egyptian prisoners, in what was known as the “courtyard” in the Yom Kippur War.

After 1973, most of the iconic photographs are political. They are also artistically weaker, and are not necessarily known today. Many Israelis would recognize the picture of the religious Zionist leader Ḥanan Porat carried on his comrades’ shoulders in Sebastia. Who could name the photographer? Eight years later, a picture was taken that gained mythic status for the Peace Now left of its time, a solid front of 1980s manly men holding hands, with Emil Grunzweig at its center. (Vardi Kahana, who took the picture, was perhaps Israel’s first female photographer of significance). Was it the famous Peace Now demonstration after the publishing of the report on the Sabra and Shatila massacre, at the end of which Greenzweig was killed by the grenade hurled by the far-right activist Yonah Avrushmi? In any event, the difference between the militant popular movement that was Peace Now in 1983, and the movement we know today that spends its time filing appeals and counting settlers’ houses is enormous.

The era of the photographers of the newspapers Ḥadashot and Monitin came next. Adam Baruch set the new standard in photography, with some help Micha Kirshner: Brigadier General Yiftaḥ Spector bare-chested, an Arab kid who was hit with a rubber bullet, that sort of thing. Still, those who seek out moments of national significance still take the photographs that people remember: Begin and Sharon on the Beaufort crusader castle in Lebanon, with a second lieutenant in the Golani special forces reporting to then-Defense Minister Sharon. The photo is etched in our memories in part because this is where Begin asked Sharon if the PLO fighters had machine guns, and because of Sharon’s original, incorrect statement that no Israeli soldiers were killed in the preceding battle.

This is the period of the paradoxical career of the Israel-Prize winning photographer Alex Levac. One picture he took, of two Shin-Bet officers leading a live terrorist away after the hijacking of the 300 bus, became infamous because it led to the discovery that the Palestinian in the photograph, along with another hijacker, were summarily executed by the Shin Bet. Thus this photo has remained in Israeli consciousness far more than the hundreds, or even thousands, of other good pictures he took.

But since the 1980s, it’s harder and harder to find a winning image—a visual image from a seminal event. This is despite the fact that there is even footage of Yigal Amir shooting Prime Minister Rabin in the back. The visual digital explosion of the past few decades blurs everything, including the names of the photographers—and the events themselves. Among the flat sea of photographers, only one stands out in recent years: Miri Tzaḥi. The Israeli family has changed, but Tzaḥi knew how to connect with the disengagement from Gaza and other events full of national pathos, which other photographers missed.

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Read more at Mida

More about: Arts & Culture, Israel & Zionism, Israeli culture, Photography, Western Wall

UN Peacekeepers in Lebanon Risk Their Lives, but Still May Do More Harm Than Good

Jan. 27 2023

Last month an Irish member of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) was killed by Hizballah guerrillas who opened fire on his vehicle. To David Schenker, it is likely the peacekeeper was “assassinated” to send “a clear message of Hizballah’s growing hostility toward UNIFIL.” The peacekeeping force has had a presence in south Lebanon since 1978, serving first to maintain calm between Israel and the PLO, and later between Israel and Hizballah. But, Schenker explains, it seems to be accomplishing little in that regard:

In its biannual reports to the Security Council, UNIFIL openly concedes its failure to interdict weapons destined for Hizballah. While the contingent acknowledges allegations of “arms transfers to non-state actors” in Lebanon, i.e., Hizballah, UNIFIL says it’s “not in a position to substantiate” them. Given how ubiquitous UN peacekeepers are in the Hizballah heartland, this perennial failure to observe—let alone appropriate—even a single weapons delivery is a fair measure of the utter failure of UNIFIL’s mission. Regardless, Washington continues to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into this failed enterprise, and its local partner, the Lebanese Armed Forces.

Since 2006, UNIFIL patrols have periodically been subjected to Hizballah roadside bombs in what quickly proved to be a successful effort to discourage the organization proactively from executing its charge. In recent years, though, UN peacekeepers have increasingly been targeted by the terror organization that runs Lebanon, and which tightly controls the region that UNIFIL was set up to secure. The latest UN reports tell a harrowing story of a spike in the pattern of harassment and assaults on the force. . . .

Four decades on, UNIFIL’s mission has clearly become untenable. Not only is the organization ineffective, its deployment serves as a key driver of the economy in south Lebanon, employing and sustaining Hizballah’s supporters and constituents. At $500 million a year—$125 million of which is paid by Washington—the deployment is also expensive. Already, the force is in harm’s way, and during the inevitable next war between Israel and Hizballah, this 10,000-strong contingent will provide the militia with an impressive human shield.

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Read more at Tablet

More about: Hizballah, Lebanon, Peacekeepers, U.S. Foreign policy