The Israeli Army's Wary Eye on Photography Great Robert Capa

The veteran war photographer recorded Israel's early days, accompanied by minders. The pictures are now on display at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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The Tel Aviv beach, 1948
The Tel Aviv beach, 1948Credit: Robert Capa
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

In 1948, Robert Capa arrived in Israel. Capa, a Budapest-born Jew, wanted to record the epic events taking place here: the establishment of the state, the arrival of the new immigrants, the War of Independence.

His portfolio already included a raft of classic shots: Leon Trotsky in 1932 and photos from the Spanish Civil War and the D-Day landing on Omaha Beach. Later in 1944 he snapped German snipers shooting at crowds celebrating the liberation of Paris.

Over here, the Israel Defense Forces treated Capa with respect mingled with suspicion. Documents belonging to photographer Micha Bar-Am, whose work later won him an Israel Prize, recorded some of Capa’s doings.

One dispatch was penned on June 8, 1948, by Moshe Pearlman, the first IDF spokesman during the War of Independence.

“Capa ... is left-leaning in his political views and became famous mainly in Spain for anti-fascist propaganda against Franco, and in China for his work with the Communist forces,” wrote Pearlman.

“There is no question that Robert Capa should be offered any necessary assistance, but because he has a great deal of combat and military experience, I suggest that he travel accompanied by a member of the security services,” Pearlman wrote.

“They decided to keep an eye on Capa,” Bar-Am told this reporter about the document, now in the IDF archives. Another document published four days earlier is entitled: “Propaganda and foreign correspondents.” It was written by one A. Moskovitz – an IDF liaison officer.

The Altalena and Menachem Begin

Moskovitz noted that Capa was among “correspondents and photographers from leading magazines . Due to the nature of their work, it is desirable for them to remain for a longer period of time at a specific front.” He recommended sending Capa to the Latrun front, which Israel would lose during the War of Independence.

Capa remained in Israel until 1950; he photographed the declaration of independence, the Altalena on fire, Menachem Begin addressing a crowd, refugees arriving and new Israelis at the ma’abarot transit camps. These photos and others are now on display in an exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art: “Robert Capa: Photographer of Life,” curated by Raz Samira.

Capa’s activity in Israel was also documented in an article by art critic Eugene Kolb, later the director of the Tel Aviv Museum. It was published in the daily Al Hamishmar in 1948.

“Of all the foreign greats walking around Tel Aviv’s ‘international quarter’ and on fronts from Dan to Be’er Sheva, and who pop from a press conference to a patrol operation, the person who made the strongest impression on me was a photojournalist named Robert Capa,” Kolb wrote.

Capa provided some good quotes in the interview.

“There are two countries in the world where two minutes after you reach the border you’re asked your opinion of them. One country is the Soviet Union and the second is the Land of Israel. When you first arrive at a kolkhoz [a Soviet collective farm] or a kibbutz, they ask you ‘what’s your opinion of the kolkhoz? What’s your opinion of the kibbutz?’” Capa said.

“At first you feel uncomfortable with these questions. Later, all of a sudden, you tell it as you see it: The Soviets and the Jews are the only ones with a right to such zeal. They’re the only ones who have created something new, unlike anything else.”

A non-Zionist for Zionism

Capa’s real name was Endre Friedmann, the son of a tailor from Budapest. He said in the interview he wasn’t a Zionist.

“But I’ve changed my view of the Land of Israel,” he said. “I’ve learned that for most of the world’s Jews there is no solution but the Land of Israel. And those who are opposed to it give reasons that in my opinion are unethical.”

Bar-Am, who celebrates his 85th birthday this year, never met Capa but was greatly influenced by his work. Bar-Am twice won the prize named after Capa and was even caught by Capa’s camera.

“I didn’t know him, but we made eye contact in 1948,” Bar-Am said. “When the British left Haifa I was at the port as an adventurous boy who loved traveling all over. Someone was running around there in a kind of army uniform, and he took my picture with a group of British officers sitting on the roof of the Haifa Port administration building.”

Twenty years later photographer Cornell Capa, Robert’s younger brother, arrived in Israel. He got in touch with Bar-Am and they took trips around the country.

“Those were the anxious days on the eve of the Six-Day War,” Bar-Am said. “We became friends, he adopted me as a younger brother and proposed that we work as a team. I had everything he lacked – familiarity with the area, the people and the issues, and a knowledge of the local languages.”

Cornell Capa wanted to continue the job begun by his brother, who was killed in 1954 at the age of 41 when he stepped on a land mine covering France’s war against the Vietnamese. Cornell covered the Six-Day War with Bar-Am, who stayed in contact with him until his death in 2008.

Later in Bar-Am’s career Capa’s name came up again — Bar-Am was shooting photos of the IDF soccer championship, and air force commander Ezer Weizman was on hand.

Bar-Am later decided to give the photos to the Weizman family as a gift; Weizman’s wife Reuma told him she had been one of Pearlman’s soldiers and had the privilege of being one of Capa’s escorts in Israel.

“From her closet she pulled out a folded shawl that Capa had given her as a gift,” Bar-Am said. “She was charmed by him – the heartbreaker.”

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