October 13, 2015 was a dark day for the citizens of Israel. The mood on the streets of Jerusalem was tense as Palestinian terrorists killed several Israelis in two separate attacks across the city that day. More Israelis were injured in two separate stabbings in Raanana.
This would also be the day I counted David Rubinger A’H, celebrated photojournalist and Israel Prize winner, among my mentors.
More than our shared love of photography, I found in David a sensibility I wanted to learn from. His calm surrender to turmoil, and grit despite the odds against getting that perfect shot, informed some of his most iconic images. His determination to succeed in capturing a fraction of a second, came through in wit and charm. Where others might push and cajole to get the photo at any cost, David captured Israel’s birth, adolescence and maturity with a parental serenity matched with a mischievous determination to succeed.
With each passing siren on that gray autumn day, I found myself looking for a comforting perspective. I picked up the phone to David, inviting myself to his Jerusalem home for afternoon tea. David had lived through, documented and survived just about every crisis the young state of Israel had experienced. I came to value his analysis, even though we shared very different political outlooks.
Our friendship began some years earlier as we each waited to take the stage in the speakers lounge of the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington DC. We were invited to share our perspectives on media and messaging and the rise of BDS. David and I had never met, yet we instantly connected as conversation moved between the state of European affairs, the poor quality of American tea, and our thoughts on Israel-Diaspora relations.
His anecdotes and adventures were captivating to listen to. Importantly, David was one of the only surviving witnesses to an historical record of Israel’s statehood, and I felt a responsibility to learn from this rare eyewitness about the events and personalities he documented.
David belied his true age by at least a decade, and was as sure-footed, able-bodied and quick-witted as many half his age.
The European charm and quiet seclusion of David’s home mirrored his personal demeanor. Though his face revealed a rugged, long and arduous existence, his young smile and good cheer impressed me no less than the works of art – his own iconic photo collection – hanging from the walls. I was surrounded by Golda, Ben Gurion, Chagall, Dayan and others, yet Rubinger owned the room as we talked. He was at once both a professor of Israeli history and a grandfather figure offering me cake and tea whilst the city around us went up in flames. Or so it seemed in that moment.
As David relayed several anecdotes to me that day, I couldn’t resist asking permission to take a look at his new Leica camera. Unsure if I’d stepped over a line, I was relieved when David invited me to play around with it, to try taking a few shots. Thrilled, I soon found myself attempting a selfie with David, to which he was more than willing to play along.
And then he grabbed my hand, jolted it higher and said: “Wait — like this, higher — never cut off the heads.” In a playful moment, David had assumed a mentor-student pose with me, and reminded me of a key photographic lesson that explains so much of what drove David to succeed where others would not even bother trying: never cut off the hands or the heads — even if it costs you the perfect shot.
David’s insistence on my careful framing of the selfie shot also explains why the iconic image of the three paratroopers standing in awe at the Western Wall, was not the image he felt best captured that magical national moment.
Anni, his late wife, he revealed, encouraged him to take that photo only after he’d photographed Rabbi Goren blowing the shofar at the scene, moments earlier. That image, David felt, was the better photo, with connotations and resonance that tell the story of that magic moment. The paratrooper image he declared wasn’t quite perfect. David saw what others did not, in cropped heads of bystanders framing that image we so recognize today. David taught me to keep an eye on the margins, the edges of a frame, and to look for opportunities away from the center of the frame, and to avoid pitfalls at the same — whilst everyone else is fixated front and center. It was a hard-wired philosophy that animated David’s brilliant career.
As the months passed and anti-Israel resolutions and biased media decried Israel’s alleged crimes and disproportionate response to terror, I invited David to be the opening speaker for HonestReporting’s Israel Mission in May 2016. I believed that his firsthand testimony to Israel’s efforts and achievements, setbacks and shortcomings, would be an invaluable insight for our visiting delegation.
In an era that Israel’s legitimacy, and very presence in Jerusalem is in question, testimony such as David’s is, and will be, essential in our continued efforts to expose and defang Israel haters and their goals. No less than survivors of the Shoah bear witness to events that others try to deny, David witnessed and recorded the birth of a nation in all its hair-raising wonder.
As we approach the 50-year anniversary of the Six-Day War, that wonder in those paratroopers’ eyes in David’s iconic photograph, serves as a timely reminder – this seminal event in Israel’s history is something that we can take pride in, despite the protestations of Israel’s detractors.
David Rubinger’s work and his memory will be an ever growing blessing to us all.