The David Rubinger photograph of three paratroopers standing in silent awe in front of the recaptured Western Wall after the battle for Jerusalem in 1967 has become the defining image of one of the most significant moments in Israel’s history.
With the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War approaching, Zion Karasenti, Haim Oshri, and Dr. Itizik Yifat returned to the Old City this week to remember the moment.
Karasenti, Oshri, and Yifat described to Channel 2 News how they, as 20-something reserve duty soldiers, inadvertently became the symbol of a nation fulfilling a 2,000 year dream.
“There were snipers everywhere, especially from overhead. They could have thrown a grenade on us and finished us,” Karasenti recalled of the battle for the Jerusalem holy site.
Since none of them had ever been to the Western Wall, which had been under Jordanian rule since 1948, they admitted that, at first, nobody was really sure they had even captured the “real thing.”
“Everyone talked about the Kotel [Western Wall] all the time, but we were new and we had never been there. That day was the first time any of us had ever been there,” Oshri said.
At the time there was only a narrow corridor separating the Western Wall of the Temple Mount from the nearby houses and buildings of the Old City.
“When they [our colleagues] raised the flag over the Western Wall, that was our sign,” Karasenti said.
“After the 48 hours of battle, we were tired and sweaty, our uniforms were dusty and bloodied, but when we walked down the stairs and saw the stones of the Western Wall, a lot of the guys started crying.
“It was an extraordinary thing, its hard to describe,” Karasenti said.
It wasn’t until after the war was over that the three men realized the picture of them taken by legendary photographer Rubinger had become famous worldwide.
“After the war, my neighbor who was a brand new immigrant from Poland, came running out to show me that my photo was in the Polish newspapers. I was shocked,” said Yifat.
“We did become a symbol of our strength,” Yifat said.
Karasenti said he too was surprised to see it on the front page of the Haaretz daily the following week.
“I showed it to my girlfriend at the time, I couldn’t believe it, I told her ‘look, someone took our picture!'”
To many, the 50th anniversary of Israel’s victory in the Six Day War — in which Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula –is a bittersweet one. It represents half a century since the Old City and other historic Jewish sites returned to Jewish hands, but also half a century of Israeli military rule over the Palestinians.
Asked about the dual nature of the jubilee, the men appear to be as divided as Israeli society.
“There is something to be said for that [calling the image the start of the tragedy of the state of Israel] Yifat said. “I don’t believe that we should be ruling over another nation.”
“How can you say that as an Israeli who fought for something after 2,000 years of longing?” Karasenti shot back. “We returned the heart of the Jewish people to this land.”
Retorted Yifat: “What am I supposed to tell my grandchildren? That there will be war every year?”
Despite their political differences, the three men, now in their 70s, say they have remained close friends over the years.
As Karasenti, Oshri, and Yifat approached the wall to take a picture this week, a passerby stopped the three to thank them.
“All of the people that are here right now are only here because of you,” this man said. “It’s you, and all of the other soldiers who fought then. This is all thanks to your courage and your faith. So again, thank you so much.”