History's witness

Photography - To understand Israel's story, we need pictures as much as words

It must be the quality of the light in Budapest that has produced so many exceptional Hungarian photographers. Three of the greatest photographers of the 20th century, Andre Kertesz, Robert Capa and BrassaI, were Hungarian Jews. Capa was born Andre Friedman; BrassaI's real name was Gyula Halasz. Perhaps it's because he worked in Palestine and Israel that Paul Goldman did not feel the need to change his name.

Goldman, whose work appears in "Eretz Israel: birth of a nation" at the Proud gallery in Camden, north London, is not as well known as his compatriots, but his work certainly deserves much wider recognition than it has had. He fled Budapest in 1940 with his wife, Dina, arriving in Palestine in the final years of the British Mandate. Caught between the increasingly violent Zionist movement and the Arab uprising against Jewish immigration, the British eventually left in May 1948, wishing a loud good riddance to Palestine's warring inhabitants.

The struggle between Jew and Arab was a gift, if an often bloody one, for a photographer. Goldman's pictures give us a ringside view of history. He records the casualties being evacuated from the wreckage of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, blown up by Menachem Begin's Irgun, killing 91 people and injuring hundreds. He photographs the in-gathering of the ancient Jewish community of Yemen in Operation Magic Carpet in 1949; a group of Jewish refugees from Europe huddled in their winter coats looking guardedly at the camera; a small boy dressed in shorts and an oversize army blouson standing proud with a rifle on his back. Goldman's best-known image is not of war: it is a portrait of David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, doing a headstand on Herzliya Beach.

Despite his friendship with Israel's leaders, Goldman, like many great artists, died in poverty, his work almost forgotten. Just as journalists' reports in those years were usually anonymously bylined "From our correspondent", news photographers were rarely credited for their work. Thankfully, his archive of 40,000 photographs was rescued by the collector Spencer M Partrich and Goldman's fellow photojournalist David Rubinger, who shares the exhibition.

Born in Vienna, Rubinger arrived in Palestine in 1939 and served in the British army before picking up a camera. Now 81, and still on the staff of Time maga- zine after 50 years, Rubinger is one of the best-known photojournalists in Israel. He accompanied Menachem Begin on his visit to Egypt in 1980 during the brief period of optimism that followed the Camp David Accords. His portrait of Begin and the then Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, is particularly striking. The two men stand so close together that Sadat's head is resting on Begin's. Begin seems to be listening, while Sadat's eyes are closed, weary with the impossibility of ever persuading these two stubborn, fractious and determined peoples to live side by side in peace. The price of not doing so can be seen in an earlier photograph, taken in 1972 in the Sinai Desert: the desiccated finger of a dead Egyptian soldier points heavenwards after the desert winds had uncovered his shallow, sandy grave.

To understand the story of Israel and Palestine, we need photographs as much as words, and pictures of ordinary people as well as politicians. The daily barrage of news ignores the human story of those whose destinies are decided by the conflict. Television news is ephemeral; photographs endure. Writing City of Oranges, about the lives of Arab and Jewish families in Jaffa, I included an extensive picture section to bring the people in the book to life. Looking at a photograph of Yoram and Rina Aharoni, a young couple living underground during the 1940s as members of the Stern Group, I felt the determination of those fighting to establish a Jewish state. Looking at a portrait of the Palestinian Hammami family, of brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, now dispersed across the world having fled Jaffa in 1948, I understood better the reality, and human cost, of exile.

There is joy in this exhibition, as well as pain. Two brothers embrace at Tel Aviv airport, finally reunited after permission is granted to leave the Soviet Union. There is the joy, too, of imminent statehood in one of Rubinger's first published pictures, of young Jews in Jerusalem celebrating after the United Nations voted in November 1947 to partition Palestine into a Jewish and Arab state; they are shown climbing on to a British armoured vehicle, waving a hand-painted Israeli flag. But instead of bringing peace, the UN vote immediately triggered fighting, a struggle that continues to this day.

Rubinger's portrait of three Israeli soldiers in the 1967 Six Day War has become an iconic image of modern Israeli history. The paratroopers had captured the area around the Western Wall, part of King Solomon's Temple and one of the holiest sites in Judaism, just ten minutes earlier. The three soldiers stand awestruck, their faces full of longing and wonder, weariness and satisfaction. The youngest, in the centre, is barely more than a boy, with a wispy teenage moustache. He holds his helmet in his hand, while a comrade rests one arm on his shoulder. But the triumph of 1967 did not bring peace, least of all to Jerusalem. Before the Six Day War the city was split in two: West Jerusalem was part of Israel, East Jerusalem was ruled by Jordan. The Jordanians destroyed much of the historic Jewish quarter, demolishing synagogues and cemeteries. Israel quickly bulldozed the Maghrebi quarter, which had stood by the wall for centuries, to make way for a giant plaza.

Now they are building in Israel as well as demolishing: the security fence, or the "apartheid wall", as the Palestinians have dubbed the concrete barrier that snakes deep into the West Bank and will likely form the border. The fence, say Israelis, is needed to protect them from suicide bombers, many of whom were despatched by Hamas, which has just come to power on the other side. Peace seems as elusive as ever. I only hope that, if the security fence is one day demolished and the borders are opened, David Rubinger will be there to record it.

"Eretz Israel: birth of a nation" is at Proud Camden, London NW1 (www.proud.co.uk; 020 7482 3867) from 24 February to 9 April

Adam LeBor will give an illustrated talk on his new book, City of Oranges: Arabs and Jews in Jaffa, at Jewish Book Week on Sunday 26 February at 2pm. For details see www.jewishbookweek.com

This article first appeared in the 27 February 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Shamed