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Vienna | 8.5.2008 | 10:59 
Letters from a shrinking globe: around the day in 80 worlds

Zita, Rotifer, Steve

Israel in Pictures
  There is an arresting documentation on display at Vienna's Museum on Judenplatz. It's the pictorial history of the young and troubled state of Israel. 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.
  Rubinger is a man of robust frame and blue, almost boyish eyes. The fact he is now 83 years old is only betrayed by the slight breathlessness of his voice. This man hasn't simply documented the birth and development of Israel; he's 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 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 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 often 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 hardship.

The first photo in the series shows ordinary people gathering around a water truck during the Arab-Israeli Conflict. A man and 2 boys 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. They were allowed one pail of water per household."

The photographer says 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.
  Sadly the history of the modern state of Israel is dominated by images of conflict - and the exhibition reflects this. There are quirky and engaging images of beauty contests and economic success, but my attention is caught by an iconic colour picture dated 1968 which shows 5 children lounging on the barrel of a Jordanian tank as if it were the new attraction at the playground.

Rubinger explains that, following victory in the Six Day War of 1967 a feeling of euphoria swept Israel. "Tanks and weaponry became a symbol of everything that was good and of everything that we had achieved."

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 he says to understand the photo; you have to understand the psychological state of the people at the time. In the spring and early summer of 1967 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 obviously 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 utter 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. David Rubinger describes the Yom Kippur war, which cost 2,000 Israelis their lives, as a blow to the ego and the sense of security of the Israeli's.

I asked him whether he wasn't worried about his own security in these war-zones. 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."
  I beckon the photojournalist past a portrait of a trouser-less ex-Prime Minister Shimon Peres sorting his private library in the 1990's and over to a photo from this decade. It shows the scene 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. Rubinger explains that the women are volunteers who act as watchdogs at the crossings to make sure that the soldiers don't abuse their power.

I asked him why he chose 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 only 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, says Rubinger, 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 caption explains he's the victim of a suicide bombing in a Jerusalem café.

Rubinger says the impact of those bombings, which were almost weekly during the height of the Second Intifada, is still felt acutely today. Many people still don't dare get on buses. There is a climate of fear in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Rubinger describes using suicide bombings as a weapon of war "inhumane", but adds that he feels the same about the use of fighter jets to attack Palestinian villages. He says 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."
Documenting Pain
  Rubinger has documented some of the most painful moments of Israel's 60 years of existence. But how does it feel to be clicking away with your 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 Judenplatz, Judenplatz, 1010 Vienna,
Exhibition runs until 26th October 2008.
fm4 links
  Israel at 60
Listen to last Saturday's Reality Check: Sixty years after the declaration of Independence, how should the world be marking this anniversary?
 Übersicht: Alle ORF-Angebote auf einen Blick