Interview with the Israeli War Reporter David Rubinger

"Better the Awful Truth than Beautiful Lies"

In an interview with Magdalena Suerbaum, Israeli press photographer and war reporter David Rubinger (86) speaks about the magic of good images, the limits of freedom of the press and the chances for peace in the Middle East

David Rubinger (photo: DW/Magdalena Suerbaum)
"Life is a compromise, and always has been!" David Rubinger, Israel's foremost photojournalist

​​ David Rubinger was born in Vienna in 1924 and emigrated 15 years later to the British mandate in Palestine. After fighting in Israel's 1948 war of independence, he began to work as a professional press photographer for Time/Life. Rubinger portrays all facets of Israel in his pictures: wars and peace negotiations, Jewish immigrants and high-ranking statesmen, the joy and suffering in the face of all the country went through in the course of the 20th century.

Mr. Rubinger, you have captured virtually all major events in the history of the state of Israel in your photographs. Which of the images moved you most?

David Rubinger: That's like asking someone: Which of your children do you love the most? That's very difficult to answer. One of the pictures that really moved me was the one of Egyptian President Sadat descending from the plane in Tel Aviv, because the Israeli Army salutes him although Israel and Egypt had just fought four wars against each other. That was quite exciting.

What do you feel when you look at your most famous picture, the one of three Israeli soldiers at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem during the Six Day's War?

photo: dpa/David Rubinger
"An icon is not made by the photographer; it's made by the viewer": Israeli soldiers retake the Wailing Wall at the end of the Six Days' War – probably David Rubinger's most famous photo

​​ Rubinger: The picture before the Wailing Wall became an icon. Everyone was incredibly euphoric at the time. People often ask me: Did you really cry while shooting that picture? I tell them: Yes, I did cry, but not because I have some kind of deep religious connection with the Wailing Wall. Before the Six Days' War, we lived three weeks long in fear of lives. We were certain that there would be thousands of casualties in this war. And then it was suddenly over after six days and, what's more, with a total victory. We fell into the kind of euphoria that can only be compared to that of a man who is about to be hanged, who already has the rope around his neck, and then someone comes up and suddenly says: "We've decided not to hang you today; instead, we're going to make you king!" You just go crazy!

Did you already realise back then what you would trigger with this picture?

Rubinger: Not at all. Even today, I still don't think it's such a great photo. A pretty banal photo, I would almost say. But an icon is not made by the photographer; it's made by the viewer. People see in a photo what they want to see there. I thought that a picture I took ten minutes later was much better, when the Chief Rabbi, torah scrolls in hand, blew the shofar for the Israeli forces and they lifted him up onto their shoulders. I thought that was the picture. But then I came home to develop the film and my wife pointed to the other photo: "Look here, that's a beautiful picture." I said: "But that's nothing, just three soldiers standing there." Then I took the three negatives, which were nearly identical, and cropped one of them.

photo: David Rubinger
A historic moment: Egyptian president Anwar as-Sadat exits the plane in Tel Aviv on 22 November 1977 and the Israeli Army salutes him although Israel and Egypt had just fought four wars against each other

​​ At the time, I had a privileged position in the army. I could go anywhere I wanted to. I had freedoms not many other photographers enjoyed. So to show my gratitude I made a gift to the army of one of the three negatives. They then showed it to the Israeli press office. The office in turn reproduced it and sold it for about 50 cents to anyone who wanted it. And people wanted it. For the AP Agency, that must have been the cheapest cover photo they ever bought. And there were photographers who bought prints and put their own stamp on the back. Through this theft the picture spread across the globe. If that hadn't happened, the photo wouldn't have shown up on a half page in Time magazine. That would have been the end – so I owe a great debt of gratitude today to all thieves (laughs).

You frequently worked as war reporter during that time. What was your motivation for going to war and taking photographs of what you saw?

photo: David Rubinger
"No photograph is worth a human life": Israeli soldiers in the Yom Kippur War

​​ Rubinger: What is the motivation of a press photographer? To be where the action is. No photograph is worth a human life. How many photographers have died because they wanted to take a picture in Baghdad or elsewhere? There are only two kinds of heroes. Complete idiots and those who are ashamed. A photojournalist is ashamed when all the other journalists rush to the scene and he holds back. So he rushes there too. That's the entire motivation of a photographer who goes to war and puts his life in danger for a picture. But, again: No photograph is worth a human life.

How did you deal with the horrific sights of war?

Rubinger: You get used to them. It sounds terribly harsh, but first you photograph corpses and then you go eat breakfast or open a can of food. Unfortunately, you just have to get used to it. People couldn't go on living if they let every misfortune get to them. If you walk across the street today and a dog gets run over before your eyes, then you will be dreadfully upset. Can you imagine being just as upset about 10,000 people dying in Darfour? You couldn't live with that. One gets tough. But not callous.

Where do the limits of freedom of the press lie for you as a photographer?

Rubinger: It's very simple: What does the public have a right to see or to read? I don't believe it's my right to see what Mrs. Merkel's bum looks like. Those aren't photojournalists, they're paparazzi. And therein lies the big difference. But if I were to see Mrs. Merkel walk into a shop, steal something and slip it into her bag, then I should take a picture, because that's something the public ought to know.

photo: David Rubinger
"The truth always gets your further": Beit She'an, December 1974: Palestinian attackers who had been overpowered by the army were then thrown out the window by an angry mob and burned

​​ As a photographer, are you capable of being objective?

Rubinger: There is no such thing as total objectivity. There are always things a person is closer to and those that are more remote to him. I have also photographed wars in which Israel was not involved. I was on the scene in two wars in Cyprus, and that was much easier for me. I have just as much sympathy for the Greeks as I do for the Turks. It's more difficult when people who are close to you are involved in the war. But you can still remain quite objective. To tell me: I won't make that picture because it doesn't show Israel in a positive light – that has never happened to me.

Sometimes people have reproached me, saying: How could you photograph something like that? That makes Israel look bad before the whole world. And I always replied: The most horrid truth is always better than the most beautiful lie. I had one case when terrorists had descended on a house. The Israeli army was able to overpower them and then an angry mob pushed their way into the apartment and threw the men out the window. A wild crowd standing down below set the bodies on fire. I photographed it from the window above. The picture appeared in Time magazine.

A good friend, a general, said to me: As a friend, if I had seen what you were doing, I would have smashed your camera. I replied: I took the picture because it's the truth, not a pleasant truth, but it is the truth. Imagine you would have smashed the camera and afterward rumours would have circulated through the world about what the Israelis did with the bodies. What would you have said then? The truth always gets your further. An awful truth is better than a beautiful lie, and it is also more successful. That's why I have never let anyone tell me what I should or shouldn't photograph.

photo: David Rubinger
David Rubinger also documented the house-to-house fighting during the 1983 Lebanese War. "A cold peace is ten times better to my mind than a warm war," Rubinger says

​​ The peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians have once again broken down. You have experienced the battle between the two peoples up close ever since the founding of the state of Israel. Can there ever be peace between Israel and Palestine?

Rubinger: An all-encompassing peace can at this moment probably not be achieved, but a situation like the one with Egypt for example can. That is a kind of peace. Ambassadors have been exchanged. It is not a warm peace, we are not great friends. Still, a cold peace is ten times better to my mind than a warm war. A cold peace: no-one dies, and there is no love lost. That isn't the case anyway; there are only interests. And I am hopeful that Palestinians and Israelis will still make some progress. We have already made progress when a Prime Minister who comes from the far right can today openly speak of the concept of two states. A few years ago his own party would have kicked him out if he had done so much as utter the phrase "two-state solution". A certain amount of progress can be seen.

How can peace be achieved?

Rubinger: Both sides must be saved from themselves by the major powers. We have to be forced.

Where do you see Israel and Palestine in ten years?

Rubinger: I won't be here anymore. But I can say with a clear conscience that 80% of the people on both sides want to find a solution. Unfortunately, it's always the extremes that set the tone. I am convinced that, if an agreement between Israel and Palestine were to be signed tomorrow, the day afterward some Arab would take a seat on a bus in Tel Aviv and kill 40 people. And I'm just as certain that there would also be a settler who would enter a mosque and shoot down people in prayer. The extremists on both sides should actually shake hands, because neither wants a peaceful solution. Each of them wants everything. And when everyone wants everything, it's impossible: life is a compromise, and always has been! In the 21st century problems will no longer be solved by violence. We have to think further – or all perish together.

Interview: Magdalena Suerbaum

© Deutsche Welle/ 2010

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

Editors: Thomas Latschan/Rainer Sollich, Lewis Gropp/

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