David Rubinger was an Israeli photographer and photojournalist. Nicknamed by Shimon Peres "the photographer of the nation in the making", he spent his professional career chronicling the story of the nation of Israel, and is perhaps most remembered by his famous photograph of three Israeli paratroopers at the Western Wall just 20 minutes following the recapture of the Western Wall and the decisive Israeli victory of the Six-Day War. The picture went on to become an iconic image to Israel's national narrative, inspiring national pride and Zionism. Because of the strong emotions it invoked, in 2001 Israeli Supreme Court Justice Misha'el Kheshin declared that the photo had "become the property of the entire nation."
Born June 29, 1924 in Vienna, in Austria, Rubinger was an only child. After Nazi Germany annexed Austria in 1938, 15-year-old Rubinger fled Europe, with the help of Youth Aliya, and settled in a kibbutz in the Jordan Valley, in Mandatory Palestine. His father was able to escape to England, but his mother died in the Holocaust.
In 1945, Rubinger returned to Europe to fight in WWII, serving in the Jewish Brigade of the British Army in North Africa and Europe. It was during his military service that he discovered his aptness for photography when he was gifted with his first camera by his French girlfriend whom he was visiting in Paris while on leave. His first professional photograph was of Jewish youths climbing on a British tank in celebration of the UN Partition Plan for Palestine, which recognized the founding of an Israeli state.
Following the war, he traveled to England to visit his father. There, he met other relatives from Germany who had survived the Holocaust, including his cousin Anni and her mother. Rubinger offered Anni his hand in marriage as a means of providing her with documentation to emigrate to Palestine, however the two soon fell in love, and their "marriage of convenience" lasted for more than 50 years, until Anni's death in 2000.
Upon his return to Israel, Rubinger opened a photography business in Jerusalem, but broke into photojournalism when Uri Avnery offered him a position at HaOlam HaZeh in 1951, where he worked for two years. He then joined the staff of Yedioth Ahronoth, followed by The Jerusalem Post. His break came in 1954 when he was asked to shoot a story for Time–Life. He ended up working for them for more than 50 years. His first internationally published photo for them was of a nun holding a set of dentures that had belonged to a patient who had dropped them from a Catholic hospital window over the Green Line and into Jordanian territory. The nun was allowed to cross the border only after much negotiation.
As Time–Life's primary photographer for the region, Rubinger covered all of Israel's wars and was given unprecedented access to governmental leaders: he was the only photographer allowed in the Knesset cafeteria. With the sort of access and exposure that allows the subjects to disregard the photographer's presence, Rubinger was able to take memorable photos of Golda Meir feeding her granddaughter or quiet moments between Yitzhak and Leah Rabin, for example.
Rubinger's signature photograph is of paratroopers at the Western Wall, shortly after its recapture by Israeli forces in the Six-Day War. Shot from a low angle, the faces of (left to right) Zion Karasenti, Yitzhak Yifat, and Haim Oshri are framed against the wall. The three of them are framed with their backs toward the wall, gazing off into the distance, and Yifat (center) holds his helmet in his hand. Israeli author Yossi Klein Halevi calls it "the most beloved Jewish photographic image of our time".
Prior to taking the photograph, Rubinger had been at el-Arish on the Sinai Peninsula when he heard a rumor that something big was going to happen in Jerusalem. He hopped aboard a helicopter ferrying wounded soldiers to Beersheba, although he didn't know its destination at the time. His car happened to be there, and he drove the rest of the way, at one point asking a hitchhiking soldier he had picked up to drive because he was too sleepy. He arrived in the Old City and after visiting quickly with his family, made his way to the wall. The space between the wall and the buildings in front of it was very narrow, so he lay down to get a shot of the wall itself, when the paratroopers walked by and he took several shots of them.
Twenty minutes later, IDF Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren arrived on scene with a shofar and a Torah scroll, whereupon Goren was hoisted upon the shoulders of the soldiers. It was an emotional scene and Rubinger by far preferred that one, though his wife Anni told him "the one of the three soldiers" was better.
As part of his agreement with the Israeli Army allowing him front-line access, he turned the negatives over to the government, who distributed it to everyone for a mere I£2 each. It was then widely pirated as well. Although Rubinger was upset about his work being stolen, the photo's widespread distribution made it famous.
David Rubinger was awarded the Israel Prize in communications for 1997, the first year it was awarded in that category. (His fellow laureate in communications was veteran television broadcaster Haim Yavin). He was the first photographer to receive the Israel Prize, as the category of Photography was not awarded until 2000.
On 5 March 2017, Israel's mass-circulation Hebrew-language daily Yedioth Ahronoth, for whom David Rubinger had worked in the past, published a 21-page special photographic supplement in color of selected photographs spanning his career. Titled "The Man who was There," the cover caption read: There's no Israeli leader he didn't document or historic event where he wasn't present. To a great extent, David Rubinger, who passed away last week, is the photographer of our life here in Israel."