The Photograph: A Search for June 1967

By Yossi Klein Halevi

Forty years later, the soldier at the Wall speaks.

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Editor’s note:
Shortly after the publication of this piece, the photographer David Rubinger contacted us, troubled by the possible implication that he had improperly directed the subjects of his photograph. We would like to clarify that neither the author nor the editors intended to imply as such, nor any other inference that would undermine the professionalism of the photographer or his work, but referred solely to work that meets the highest standards of photojournalism. Rubinger remains one of the great Israeli photographers of our time.
Sometime around 10:15 on the morning of June 7, 1967, the first reservist paratroopers of Brigade 55 broke through the Lion’s Gate leading into the Old City of Jerusalem and reached the narrow enclave of the Western Wall. Having just fought a fierce two-day battle in the streets of east Jerusalem, they grieved for lost friends, and grieved as well for their own lost innocence in what for many was their first experience of combat. They leaned against the Wall, some in exhaustion, some in prayer. Several wept, instinctively connecting to the Wall’s tradition of mourning the destruction of the Temple and the loss of Jewish sovereignty—precisely at the moment when Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem had been restored.
Several hours later, Yitzhak Yifat, a twenty-four-year-old reservist about to begin medical school, reached the Wall. As part of the brigade’s 66th Battalion, he and his friends had fought in the Six Day War’s toughest battle: Intimate combat against elite Jordanian Legionnaires in the trenches of Ammunition Hill, on the road to Mount Scopus. Something in their faces—perhaps a combination of exhaustion and uplift—caught the eye of news photographer David Rubinger. He lay on the ground and photographed the paratroopers, who appeared, in the subsequent photograph, almost statuesque. Though the newspaper captions claimed the paratroopers were gazing up at the Wall, they were in fact standing with their backs to it, looking off into the distance, at an object or a scene beyond the photograph’s reach.
Yifat is the centerpoint of the photograph, and not only because he is physically positioned there. Among his friends, only Yifat’s face is truly memorable; the faces around him seem to blur into his. Partly that is because he alone has removed his helmet, revealing the civilian beneath the soldier. Yifat also allows himself to appear vulnerable: While the men around him are tight-lipped, suppressing emotion, his mouth is open, as if trying to express the ineffable. 
One more iconic image emerged from the Six Day War: A photograph, which appeared on the cover of Life magazine, of a grinning, tousle-haired Israeli soldier, holding high a captured Egyptian Kalashnikov as he bathes in the Suez Canal. Like the paratroopers at the Wall, he too is gazing upward, and appears exhausted; but there all resemblance ends. Taken together, the two photographs offer opposing images of victory. The Life photograph lacks the emotional complexity that marks the face of Yitzhak Yifat and the other paratroopers at the Wall. Instead, it reflects the exuberance of a young man celebrating victory—his nation’s survival, and his own. It is the face of Israeli normalcy: Having achieved its greatest victory, Israel has vindicated Zionism’s promise to ensure the happy ending of the Jewish story.
Forty years later, the snapshot of the soldier at the canal has been mostly forgotten, while the picture of the paratroopers at the Wall has become, arguably, the most beloved Jewish photographic image of our time—appearing in Passover Hagadas and on computer screen savers and posters in college dorm rooms. When Israel recently marked forty years to the Six Day War, the photograph at the Wall served as the media logo. Despite attempts to transform the picture into political parody and commercial kitsch—it has been co-opted for a protest poster by an artist opposed to the occupation, painted in rainbow colors by a gay group, and featured in a cigarette advertisement—its power to inspire hasn’t diminished.
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. Rubinger’s photograph catches a precise historical moment: The return of the last two thousand years of Jewish history to the Zionist story. Many of the paratroopers identified themselves as Israelis first, Jews only a distant second; some weren’t quite sure whether they identified as Jews at all. And yet it is at the Wall of all places, symbol of the quietism of exile, where secular Israelis become reconciled with their Jewishness. As one paratrooper put it, “At the Wall I discovered that I’m a Jew.” Yifat’s face seems to instantly age—exhausted not only from battle but from encountering his own venerability.
The recovery of Jewish identity was reinforced by the trajectory of the war. The genocidal threats emanating from Arab capitals in May 1967, along with the absence of tangible international support for Israel at its most desperate time, evoked old Jewish fears, even among sabras. At the same time, the diaspora became assertively pro-Israel: Jews around the world suddenly realized how much the existence of a Jewish state meant to them, and how unbearable it would be to live in a world that could tolerate two holocausts in a single generation. The powerful expressions of Jewish solidarity that emerged in Paris, New York, and even Moscow in May and June of 1967 were reciprocated by the paratroopers at the Wall. “How does it happen that paratroopers weep?” asked Haim Hefer in a popular poem he wrote after the battle for Jerusalem. “Perhaps it’s because the boys of nineteen who were born with the state / carry on their backs two thousand years.”
Perhaps the photograph continues to endure because it caught an even more profound moment in the story of Zionism—the return not only of Jewish identity but of the Jewish God. Judaism posited a daring idea: That God’s power and goodness would be revealed not only in the majesty of nature but in the messiness of history—and even more improbably, in Jewish history. The meaning of Jewish history, then, is that history has meaning. 
After the Holocaust, though, the notion of a God at once omnipotent and benevolent seemed to many Jews not merely implausible but offensive. In that sense, the Nazis had won a significant victory; discrediting the Jewish God of history had been a central goal of the Final Solution. The Final Solution was, in a sense, a theological project, an attempt to confirm the ancient pagan taunt against the Jews: “Where is your God?” The Nazis deliberately scheduled aktions for Jewish holidays—commemorations of moments of divine intimacy with Israel—to reinforce the message of the absence of the invisible God of the Jews.
The return of the Jews to Jerusalem challenged, if not negated, the Nazi assault on the God of Israel. History had yielded the moment of consolation that generations of believing Jews had insisted, against all logic, must come. Once again, it was possible for Jews to at least consider that the traditional Jewish view of God may be right after all. The reverence that many Jews felt toward the photograph of the paratroopers was the stunned realization—seemingly reflected in Yitzhak Yifat’s upturned face—that skeptical secularism may not be an adequate way of understanding the Jewish story, that God may be real after all. Not the confirmation of faith, then, but the possibility of faith. “We received the Tora at Mount Sinai,” wrote the Yiddish poet Jacob Glatstein, “and in Lublin we gave it back.” In Jerusalem, at the Wall, if only for a moment, we considered accepting it again....

Yossi Klein Halevi is a Senior Fellow at the Shalem Center, a Contributing Editor of Azure, and the Israel correspondent of The New Republic.

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