Editor’s note: This article appeared in these pages a few years ago, but in honor of Yom Yerushalayim (this Monday, May 10) we are running it again (slightly modified).
You know The Photograph. If you close your eyes, even now, you can see it as clear as day and, if you are like most Jews who love Israel, it is indelibly etched upon not only your memory but upon your soul.
The Photograph has become the definitive and iconic image of Israel’s 1967 victory, the recapture of Jerusalem after 2,000 years, and the Jewish people as a nation returning after two millennia of bitter exile to the Western Wall, the sole (and “soul”) remnant of their Holy Temple.
On one level seemingly a mere moment frozen in time, The Photograph is in reality an eternal image that transcends time. One commentator perfectly described it as “the most beloved Jewish photographic image of our time whose power to inspire hasn’t diminished.”
Whenever I see it, my mind turns instantly to the glorious Psalm 126 written by King David some three millennia ago, which today we recite after every Shabbat and Yom Tov meal. As the Psalmist so beautifully writes in describing the return of the Jews to their homeland, “Shir hamalot…b’shuv Hashem et shivat Tzion, hayinu ki’cholmim – A song of those who ascend [to Eretz Yisrael]: When Hashem returns the captives of Zion, we were as dreamers.”
Study the faces of the three paratroopers standing in silent awe before the Wall, the last remnant of the Holy Temple that never left the thoughts and prayers of the Jewish people. I always imagine them thinking “Are we here? Can this be real?”
Indeed, “as dreamers…”
Exhibited here is a print of The Photograph on which I personally obtained the autographs of the three paratroopers. From left to right, they are Tzion Karasenti, Yitzhak Yifat (who also signed in English and added the year “1967”), and Chaim Oshri. Although their names are not famous, they have become the face of the return of the Jews to Jerusalem.
I was invited to meet them in 2017 at a Friends of the IDF event at Chabad of Northern Virginia, and it was the thrill of a lifetime to speak with them one on one, to touch them, to personally experience them. I am not at all embarrassed to admit that I engaged in some less-than-subtle hero worship; the photo I had them sign is a treasured personal memento and the memory of my experience with them is irreplaceable.
The tale of how photographer David Rubinger came to take what he characterizes as his “signature photograph” is a classic of being at the right place at the right time. He was about as far as could be from Jerusalem – with his camera at el-Arish on the Sinai Peninsula – when he heard a rumor that something momentous was about to happen in Jerusalem.
At the time, the rumor made little sense to him because Israel never had any intention to take Jerusalem, and the Old City as a military target was never on anyone’s horizon; in fact, but for Jordan’s folly in ignoring Israel’s call to stay out of the war, the Holy City would likely still be in Jordanian hands. However, Rubinger had come to respect his instincts, which were screaming at him to rush to Jerusalem.
As he tells the story, he jumped aboard the first helicopter he could find which, as it turns out, was transporting wounded soldiers to Beersheba, where he happened to have left his car. He drove the rest of the way to Jerusalem, so overcome by fatigue that he asked a hitchhiking soldier he had picked up to drive, arriving at the Western Wall only about 15 minutes after the first Israeli paratrooper battalion had liberated it.
In his autobiography, Israel Through My Lens (it is a terrific read), he describes the very narrow area between the Kotel and the dwellings near it as spanning only about 10 feet across, making it necessary for him to lie on his back and shoot skyward to be able to include both the jubilant paratroopers and the Wall itself in the frame of his shot.
Describing the entire scene as incredibly emotional, particularly following three weeks of extreme gloom and despondency – people forget how dire the situation was leading to Israel’s preemptive strike, with genocidal threats issuing from Arab capitals and vanishing international support – Rubinger says that he shot his photos with tears streaming down his cheeks and watched as hardened paratroopers all around him wept.
When he rushed home to develop his film and reviewed the results, he thought that his best shot was of Rabbi Shlomo Goren, then Chief Rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces, blowing a shofar at the Western Wall (another eternal image to emerge from the victory), but his wife chose the photograph of the three paratroopers as the best of the shoot.
Rubinger writes that in a moment of generosity, he was so “filled with euphoria about our victory and bursting with pride for Israel’s Defense Forces” that he unthinkingly handed the negative to an army spokesman, who immediately turned it over to the Government Press Office, which wasted no time in making voluminous reprints and disseminating them broadly for a dollar apiece.
His fury evident, he describes how various news agencies ran the photo without approbation, and certain photographers actually had the gall to claim authorship of the already renowned photograph.
He filed several failed lawsuits to protect his copyright, but the Government Press Office continued to distribute the photo. He describes as “the ultimate indignity” an attempt by Israeli Supreme Court Judge Mishael Cheshin to placate him by characterizing the photo as “a national treasure” which, of course, did nothing to mitigate the damages sustained by the photographer when others continued to use it as their own property and without paying compensation.
In response to frequent questions regarding whether he considers The Photograph to be of high artistic quality, Rubinger modestly answers:
My answer must quite definitely be no. What made it significant were the circumstances under which it was taken, and it was this that caused it to emerge as the symbol with which so many people identify. As so often occurs in art, people read into images what they want. Repeatedly I heard that the image was referred to as the “Crying Paratroopers at the Western Wall.” The simple fact is, not one of the people in the photograph was weeping, but if people choose to see it like that, then it is up to them.
The irony is that, had it not been so widely distributed, my reputation would not have spread internationally so rapidly. Instead, the photo would probably have appeared on half a page in the next edition of Time and then disappeared into oblivion. I suppose I should thank the Government Press Office for giving such a boost to my career!
When I spoke with them in Virginia a few years ago, the three paratroopers explained that they did not learn that Rubinger’s photograph had brought them worldwide fame until after the war. Yifat repeated a story in which he described his astonishment when his neighbor, a new Polish immigrant, showed him the photo in a Polish newspaper, and the others told similar stories.
According to Karasenti, snipers were everywhere, many of his friends were killed before his eyes in the pathway to the Wall, and all of them could have been wiped away in an instant by a single grenade. He described how after almost two full days of battle, the paratroopers were all exhausted and filthy, yet when they saw and recognized the Kotel, many of these tough military men began sobbing.
One of the more amusing recollections came from Oshri, who explained that at first nobody was certain that they had actually captured the authentic Wall: “Everyone talked about the Kotel all the time, but we were new and we had never been there.” The Kotel has become such an established image in our consciousnesses that it is difficult to imagine that, even as the paratroopers stood right before it, they were initially unable to definitively identify it until other paratroopers raised the Israeli flag over the Western Wall.
Karasenti’s reflections particularly resonated with me when he talked of the “small role” he played in returning “the heart of the Jewish people after 2,000 years of longing.” Similarly, Oshri described how special it was for him, as an Orthodox Jew who prayed three times a day for the return to Jerusalem, to play a role in the liberation of the city. Even Dr. Yifat, who is not observant, commented on how moved he was by what Israel accomplished that day and how important the return to the Old City and the Kotel was for all Jews around the world.
Perhaps The Photograph retains its power because it symbolizes not merely the return of the Jewish People to the Jewish Land, but also the return of the Jewish G-d to the Jewish people. I love how Yossi Klein Halevi described it:
The image endures, in part, because of the humility it conveys: At their moment of triumph, the conquerors are themselves conquered. The paratroopers, epitome of Zionism’s “new Jews,” stand in gratitude before the Jewish past, suddenly realizing that they owe their existence to its persistence and longing.
My friend and teacher, Rav Amnon Haramati, often spoke about facing certain death while on various missions during Israel’s War of Independence when, despite being outnumbered 1,000 to 1 and virtually unarmed, he would turn confidently to his fellow Jewish soldiers and assure them, “Al tidagu, yehiye nissim – Don’t worry, there will be miracles.” And there always were – and Jewish survival through two millennia of brutal exile is nothing if not miraculous.
As the rav loved to explain, the return of a defeated and exiled people to its homeland is a monumental anomaly that, not at all coincidentally, has happened only once in all of human history. Similarly, Israel’s unimaginable recapture of Jerusalem was viewed even by many non-believers as an open divine miracle (Rav Haramati was passionate about the importance of reciting Hallel with a bracha on Yom Yerushalayim.)
That, I believe, is the lasting legacy of The Photograph. The faces of the three paratroopers, a moment of awe and wonder captured for all time, portray perfectly the appreciation that there could be no rational explanation for the miracle before their eyes and that Hashem had revealed himself as the G-d of Jewish history.
One of my favorite poems was written by poet and Israel Prize winner Chaim Hefer after the Six-Day War:
This Kotel has heard many prayers
This Kotel has seen many walls fall
This Kotel has felt wailing women’s hands and notes pressed between its stones
This Kotel has seen Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi trampled in front of it
This Kotel has seen Caesars rising and falling
But this Kotel has never before seen paratroopers cry.
This Kotel has seen them tired and exhausted
This Kotel has seen them wounded and scratched-up
Running towards it with beating hearts, with cries and with silence
Pouncing out like predators from the alleyways of the Old City
And they’re dust-covered and dry-lipped
And they’re whispering: if I forget you, if I forget you, O Jerusalem
And they are lighter than eagles and more tenacious then lions
And their tanks are the fiery chariot of Elijah the Prophet
And they pass like lightning
And they pass in fury
And they remember the thousands of terrible years in which we
didn’t even have a Kotel in front of which we could cry.
And here they are standing in front of it and breathing deeply
And here they are looking at it with the sweet pain
And the tears fall and they look awkwardly at each other
How is it that paratroopers cry?
How is it that they touch the wall with feeling?
How is it that from crying they move to singing?
Maybe it’s because these 19-year-olds were born with the birth of Israel
carrying on their backs for 2,000 years.
Before 1967, it was referred to as the “Wailing Wall” because Jews would come there and cry for all they had lost. Now, 54 years later and forevermore, it is our Kotel HaMa’aravi where, after millennia of forced separation, Jews may come to pray and give thanks at their holiest site in their holiest city in the holiest of all lands.