Israel at Sixty

Dreams and Dillusionment

News | Christian Cummins | June 2008

Israel at 60, photographs from the exhibition at the Jewish Museum (Photo: Courtesy of the Jewish Museum)

The history of Israel is dominated by images of conflict and contradiction: proud, uniformed teenagers with machine guns along side quirky and engaging images of beauty contests and the flush of prosperity – all portrayed with remarkable honesty in an exhibition at Vienna’s the Museum am Judenplatz that opened in May.  There are 60 photos of 60 years, some humorous, some jubilant, some troubling, some tragic, but, remarkably, all of them from the camera of same photojournalist, David Rubinger.

It is hard to ignore one iconic colour picture dated 1968 showing five children lounging on the barrel of a Jordanian tank, as if it were the new attraction at the playground. Following victory in the 6-Day war of 1967, a feeling of euphoria swept Israel. The party atmosphere is unmistakable.

"Tanks and weaponry became a symbol of everything that was good and of everything that we had achieved" said Rubinger, leading a guest through the exhibit.

But the image is disturbing. Children and war don’t belong together, and if they can’t be kept apart, then the relationship shouldn’t look so casual, so comfortable. Rubinger, who is certainly no hawk, agrees.  But to understand the photo, you have to understand the psychological state of the people at the time.  It’s the pictorial history of the young and troubled state of Israel.

Rubinger is a man of robust frame and blue, almost boyish eyes. The fact he is now 83 is only betrayed by the slight breathlessness of his voice. This man hasn’t simply documented the birth and development of Israel; he has lived the dreams and disillusionments of Zionism on a very personal level.  Like many of his generation, he had to.

David Rubinger is a lost son of Vienna. Expelled from school in anti-Semitic frenzy that denied Jews education in the aftermath of the Anschluss with Nazi Germany 70 years ago, he joined a Zionist youth group as a teenager and found himself, via a refugee ferry out of Trieste, into the Jewish ‘Promised Land’ - then the British Mandate for Palestine.

After a stint fighting the Nazis with the famous Jewish Brigade of the British Army, Rubinger returned to the Middle East with a camera he had traded for stashed military rations of coffee and cigarettes. He was back to see the birth of the Jewish state; and from then until the present day, he’s been at hand, snapping away and capturing virtually every turn in the road that the Jewish state has taken on its way to the proud, successful but controversial and of vilified nation of the 21st century. The exhibition at the Judenplatz captures many of different phases that development has taken.

1948 was the year that David Ben-Gurion declared statehood for the Jewish nation ; but David Rubinger’s history of Israel doesn’t begin an atmosphere of celebration, but rather one of anxiety and desperation.

The first photo in the series shows ordinary people gathering around a water truck during the Arab/Israeli conflict.  A man and a boy look up uncomfortably and suspiciously at Rubinger’s camera. "Jerusalem was totally besieged at the time," the photojournalist explains.

"The water had to be drawn out of cisterns and distributed among the people on the streets," he said. "They were allowed one pail of water per household."

He chose the image of the water-truck rather than one of soldiers fighting, because more people died in shell attacks whilst queuing for water and food than died on the front line, an eerie foreshadowing of Sarajevo half a century later.

But it was 1967 that was the scene of some of the most powerful photos. In the spring and early summer, a simultaneous war with forces of Egypt, Jordan and Syria began to look inevitable, and the Israelis were forced to prepare for the possibility, probability even, of thousands and thousands of lost lives. Plans had been drawn out to turn the Tel Aviv football stadium into a mass grave for 40,000 people from that city alone. The sense of foreboding was enormously oppressive.

"Then, after 6 days, you wake up and you are not only not doomed, but you have become king," remembers Rubinger.   The Arab forces had been routed by pre-emptive attacks, and Israel’s territory had been expanded. The euphoria was an expression of pride mixed with a heavy dose of sheer relief.

But the loss and tragedy of war is not forgotten. Nestling next to an evocative black and white picture of broad-smiling and long haired Israeli hippies looking carefree outside the Hebrew University is a vivid colour photo of a soldier tending to a gravely wounded comrade in the bloody Yom Kippur war, of the 1970’s – again against Egypt and Syria. The exhaustion and despair is written into the tending soldier’s sun-scorched face as he holds up an infusion with his wounded friend.

The Yom Kippur war cost 2,000 Israelis lives, a "blow to the ego" and the sense of security of the Israeli’s. Wasn’t he worried about his own security in these war-zones, I wondered. He bats the question away with a chuckle:

"As a photojournalist you imagine that if you aren’t there where it matters, history won’t happen. The sun won’t even rise."

Past a portrait of a trouser-less ex-Prime Minister Shimon Peres sorting his private library in the 1990’s, we move to a much more recent photo of an Israeli soldier, clad in olive-green, examining the papers of a white-shirted Palestinian man at a military check-point.  In the background, two women watch the proceedings with intense expressions on their faces. The women are volunteers, Rubinger explains, who act as watchdogs at the crossings to make sure that the soldiers don’t abuse their power.

He had chosen this relatively positive image of Israeli civil courage rather than the images of the abuse that have necessitated the watchdogs.  Where are the notorious photos of Israeli soldiers shooting their hi-tech weapons at barefoot Palestinian boys armed with rocks, for example? Isn’t he risking painting Israel in too mild colours?

"To show those images is so obvious. I wanted to show that there are people who are concerned."

Rubinger has been outspoken in his criticism of some aspects of Israeli life, showing a particular lack of patience with the West Bank settlers. He won’t be accused of glossing over Israel’s problems.

"There is no benevolent and humane occupation. It can’t exist. Occupation is corrupting. It corrupts to the ordinary citizen; it corrupts the soldier who has to carry it out and, in a different way; it corrupts the victim – the Palestinian."

The need for checkpoints is demonstrated by the next image he has picked out. This one, from the year 2003, is of an ambulance team fighting for the life of a severely injured man on the pavement – the victim of a suicide bombing in a Jerusalem Café. The impact of those bombings, which were almost weekly during the height of the Second Intifada, is still felt acutely today, says Rubinger. There is a climate of fear in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv; many people still don’t dare get on buses. The suicide bombings have been used as a weapon of "inhumane" war, but so, he says, have fighter jets used to attack Palestinian villages. The extremists of either side have achieved a terrible thing:

"They are holding a veto over the vast majority of people on both sides that want an accommodation."

Some of the most painful moments of Israel’s 60 years of existence are documented in this exhibition of David Rubinger’s photos.  Doesn’t it ever bother him to be clicking away with his camera when a man is fighting for a life? Or when a mother is grieving her lost child?

"It’s horrible and it’s ugly, and you hate doing it. Of course it’s an intrusion into the pain of other people. But you’re telling a story. And that story has to be told."


Museum am Judenplatz

Judenplatz, 1010 Vienna

Through October 26.

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    the vienna review June 2008