Sultan of spin

In just six years, Golders Green-native Ze'ev Finer has gone from cub reporter to top media adviser.

zeev finer 88 (photo credit: )
zeev finer 88
(photo credit: )
At an age when most Israelis are just getting their bearings after returning from the obligatory trip to the East, Ze'ev Finer is preparing for his fourth career. Only 24, he is already a seasoned spin doctor with the kind of experience on all sides of the media game for which veterans double his age would give their right arm. In just six years, Finer has gone from being a cub reporter to media adviser to some of the most influential figures in the country and had a season ticket for a court-side seat at most of the major political, military and financial stories of the last five years. Born in 1982 in New York, his early childhood passed in London's Golders Green. His family made aliya when he was six and moved to Bnei Brak, where he made his uneasy way through the haredi education system before being sent back to England at 15 for "reeducation" at the renowned Gateshead Yeshiva. Although adept at Talmud study, he found it hard getting used to the more disciplined environment. He lasted two years there before being shipped home for being a bit too active for the rabbis' liking in a fight with some local ruffians who were bullying Jewish children. He found himself at the Or Elhanan Yeshiva in the Romema neighborhood of Jerusalem, but his heart wasn't in studying. Across the road were the offices of the Shas-affiliated weekly Yom Leyom. "From a young age, I knew I would work in media," he says. "That's the place to express yourself and influence people, so I began going across the road and looking for things to do." His first job there was in the telemarketing department, trying to convince people to subscribe. But his heart was in journalism and he took to hanging around the office of editor Yom Tov Rubin, trying to sell him a story. It was a wonderful time to be an independent journalist in the haredi world - Aryeh Deri had just won an incredible victory in the 1999 elections, bringing Shas an unprecedented 17 Knesset seats, only to be deposed by the party's spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who was eager to legitimize the party and allow it to join Ehud Barak's coalition. Deri's followers waged a street war through violent demonstrations and anonymous street posters viciously attacking newly appointed party leader Eli Yishai. The haredi public was hungry for every detail, and they got it all in the independent weeklies where Finer cut his teeth freelancing, offering his stories every week to another of them. His first big scoop was photos of a secret night meeting between aides of Deri and Yishai at the height of tensions, and he exchanged them for a permanent job, before he was 18, as a staff reporter for the Kav chain of local weeklies. "I tried to do things differently, the kind of stories that hadn't appeared before in haredi newspapers like investigative journalism," he says. One of his first pieces was an investigation into security at haredi shopping centers in which he used a Palestinian with a suspicious bag who had no trouble walking into any of them. He convinced his editors to give him a weekly political gossip column which he filled with tidbits on the internal squabbles among the fractious haredi MKs. The column lasted for about a year, but then the second intifada broke out and marginal politics became much less interesting when suicide bombers were going off in buses and coffee shops. A NEW breed of haredi activist was appearing on the news, the yellow-vested ZAKA volunteers led by Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, who carried out the grisly job of collecting body parts from the scenes of terror atrocities. Finer got to know Meshi-Zahav and his men as a reporter, but he felt too much like a bystander: "I wanted to be at the center of things and ZAKA was where it was happening." At the time it was still a small organization, operating from a basement, based on volunteers with only a handful of paid employees. Media-savvy Meshi-Zahav had already become a household name, but Finer tried to convince him that ZAKA's PR had to go to a higher level. "I said we should produce brochures in English and promotional films, but he wasn't very interested." Finer decided that to prove himself, he had to do something drastic, and instead of banging his head against a wall in Jerusalem he packed his bags and flew back to London. "I decided to open an international ZAKA office from nothing. We started off with a little room and a small ad in the Jewish Tribune." Finer wanted to make waves in the normally peaceful community. "Everyone had seen the pictures of haredi men collecting bodies of terror victims; I wanted every Jew in Britain to connect them with the name of ZAKA." He contacted a member of the local hevra kadisha (burial society) and told him that there were intelligence warnings of suicide attacks on Jewish targets in Britain; to prepare the local community, they organized a symposium of 200 hevra kadisha members from around the UK, with rabbis and representatives of ZAKA from Israel. Finer leaked the story to a London correspondent of one of the Israeli newspapers who passed it on to the local papers. "They all pounced on the story and made a big noise about the Jewish community preparing for suicide attacks," he says. "The big dailies, television and radio channels all reported it and of course it boomeranged back to the Israeli media. It was my first spin." The symposium was cancelled due to the publicity, but Finer and ZAKA had already got what they needed - international recognition. Another stunt took place before Hanukka when, posing as a Habad activist, Finer got a permit to light candles outside the Golders Green Underground Station and lit hundreds of memorial candles on the ground in the shape of a Star of David in memory of Israeli victims of terror. This managed to attract 500 people and, of course, was once again widely reported in the press. After almost a year in London in which he claims to have raised half a million dollars for ZAKA, homesickness overcame him. "I called Meshi-Zahav and said I'm coming back to be the ZAKA spokesman. He said, 'You're only 20, how are you going to be our spokesman,' but I did it for the next two years." It was the height of the intifada, when bombs were going off almost daily and Finer concentrated on two types of PR campaigns. On the local scene, he showed ZAKA as a haredi organization working for the nation as a whole, bringing people of diverse backgrounds together at the most difficult of times. In the international media arena, he tried to use ZAKA's activity as a way of creating more positive coverage of the Israeli side of the conflict. ZAKA WAS growing from its early Jerusalem roots to a nationwide organization, and the pictures of its teams arriving at the scene of terror bombings, diligently collecting body parts, scraping blood off walls and scouring the surrounding rooftops for any shred of human remains provided compelling scenes for the foreign networks. "As someone who had watched BBC and CNN from abroad," Finer says, "I was angry that every time an Israeli city was attacked, the main pictures you saw on the TV were of Israel's retaliation bombings in Gaza. I wanted to give them a different picture that would last for hours on the screen and give Israel more of a breathing space. Until then, they would only show some police officer or Foreign Ministry spokesman saying the old-fashioned slogans. That just wasn't effective. Even if our best spokespeople, like Binyamin Netanyahu, were talking; it was just words, and if at the same time they were showing on the split screen an Israeli tank or another bombing in the territories, his words weren't powerful enough; the tank was the image that remained with the viewers. "I thought we had to give a lot more thought to the visual aspect. For example, in the first Gulf War when Netanyahu appeared in the studios with his gas mask beside him, that was a more powerful image than anything he said." Finer insisted that the ZAKA volunteers bear in mind not only the grisly job at hand but how they looked to the cameras. In addition to the volunteers' distinctive yellow vests, he made sure that the bodies at every bombing scene would be lined up in numbered body bags, visible to the media crews. He also trained 60 volunteers in giving interviews in various languages, teaching them how to speak to the camera and to make sure that they were being filmed by a wide-angle lens that would also capture the bodies in the background. "I believed that having one of our volunteers representing a humanitarian organization talking about how a few moments ago he had been collecting body parts was a winning image that would be engraved on the viewers' minds. I didn't see myself just as ZAKA spokesman but as someone who could influence international public opinion in Israel's favor. It might sound cynical, but in the battle for hasbara everything is legitimate; our enemies do it all the time." Finer began forming his own PR strategy. "Our problem as Israelis is that we don't like showing ourselves as weak and vulnerable; the same thing happened during the Lebanon war. I said why isn't anyone showing more pictures of civilians fleeing the Katyushas, why aren't we supplying numbers of people who have left their homes, of children who have become refugees, but other spokespeople said it would only panic Israelis." He tried to put his ideas in effect not only in ZAKA operations. "The evening after the bombing of the Maxim Restaurant in Haifa, the police spokesman told me he didn't have anyone at the site, so I took charge of the area and brought a BBC reporter into the restaurant, showed him two tables where families had been killed while eating. The bodies had already been removed, but there was still a baby stroller there with a bottle and milk inside. I told him about three generations who had been slaughtered there and he made a report from inside the restaurant. "Afterward someone told me that it was better than anything we should expect from the BBC. The problem is we like to say that the media is biased and anti-Semitic. I'm not saying that doesn't exist, but we can't use it as an excuse, that's not the reason we're losing." OF COURSE he never lost sight of the organization he was serving. The daughter of an American politician was wounded in the No.14 bus bombing in central Jerusalem, and her father was about to arrive to visit her in the hospital. The visit was being organized by another organization, so Finer made sure he was greeted at the plane by a ZAKA ambulance which whisked him off to the hospital for a tearful reunion and a meeting with then foreign minister Silvan Shalom and then US ambassador Dan Kurtzer in the presence of camera crews from around the world. Afterward, Finer organized a press conference for him at the scene of the bombing. But his biggest coup was at the International Court in The Hague where the Palestinians were accusing Israel of human rights infringements for building the separation fence. "It started out as a PR stunt by the Palestinians, so I went to the Foreign Ministry with a crazy idea. I said we should take a bombed-out bus to The Hague and display it opposite the court. They didn't like the idea at first, saying that it would ruin tourism if people saw bombed buses. I answered that's what people are seeing on their TVs anyway and we'd do it with or without them. "Originally we planned to bring the bus from the Patt junction bombing two years earlier, but a week before the hearings, there was a blast on Rehov Aza and we decided that we had to bring that bus. But there was no time to ship it, so we took the bus to a workshop, sawed it in two and El Al flew it to Amsterdam for us. "It was a crazy operation. Taking care of the logistics and getting the local permits were a nightmare, but it was worth it. We made sure that TV crews filmed every stage: from sawing the bus in two, loading it on the plane at Ben-Gurion Airport, landing in Amsterdam and putting it back together again and then transporting it to The Hague. And it worked. The proceedings were boring, so everyone was filming outside and the bus got the most prominence, the Palestinian demonstration barely got any notice. "It was the first time as an Israeli and a Jew I felt our side was getting fair coverage. A Dutch police officer said to me that upon seeing the bus he finally realized what it meant that people hadn't reached their destination alive. We proved it's possible, that all you need is creativity and daring. "And we could do it because we weren't the government; we were an organization that had already shown that it takes care not only of Jewish bodies but also those of Muslims. We had been to terror scenes around the world, to New York, Istanbul, Mombasa and Taba. When people saw a ZAKA volunteer working together with an Egyptian fireman, it was a picture of peace and optimism. We could show that we were fighting terror but were not political and that terror doesn't discriminate between nations. These were pictures that only ZAKA could produce." AFTER THREE years of working with ZAKA, Finer left the organization and moved to Tel Aviv after receiving an offer to work in the crisis management department of PR firm Morel-Tzur Communications. At 22 he found himself running complex media campaigns like the sensitive Israel-Egypt natural gas deal. It was the period when as finance minister, Netanyahu ruled Israel's economy, and Finer was involved in four separate campaigns that targeted Netanyahu personally. He represented the powerful unions of the Ports Authority workers, who opposed the plan to split them up into four new companies; of Israel Military Industries, who were fighting privatization; and of Israel Electric, whose workers were against the far-reaching reform plan for the company. In addition, he managed the campaign of Holocaust survivors' organizations against the Treasury over their pensions and the ownership of property of Jews killed in the Holocaust held by the banks and the state. "We ran very personal campaigns. With IMI, we had ads with an unflattering photograph of Netanyahu, from the side of his scar, with the caption 'Bibi is harming the state's security,' and I think we did a lot to contribute to his image as someone who doesn't care about the poor. We also targeted Treasury officials with posters in their neighborhoods saying 'Wanted - For selling strategic assets for nothing.' Of course it was dirty, but we were fighting for the workers' livelihood." Finer was also part of the strategic team that ran Amir Peretz's seemingly hopeless campaign for the Labor Party leadership. "Peretz listened to everything that Motti Morel told him to do - after all he's the No. 1 campaign manager in the country - and he came from behind to win the primaries when no one gave him a chance. But then he took all the credit for himself and began making mistakes. "On the way to his victory speech, Motti told him, 'Hug [Shimon] Peres,' but he only said some words to him in the speech and Peres left. We tried to build him a leader's image, organized a meeting with Hosni Mubarak and a phone call from Tony Blair, but he made too many mistakes, talking about a return to the Oslo Accords, inheritance tax and promising to appoint an Arab minister. All that talk lost him his momentum. With [Ariel] Sharon gone, he had a real chance of winning, but he opened his mouth too much and lost it." After Peretz's victory, Finer managed Avishay Braverman's campaign in the Labor Knesset primaries. "Our problem was how to keep Braverman in the public eye after the first blitz of publicity with his entrance into politics. In the polls, he was still only in 15th place. One of our spins was to try to organize a showdown between him and Netanyahu. We heard that Bibi was slated to appear at a weekend symposium in Ness Ziona, so we managed to get Braverman invited. "They weren't supposed to appear together, but we still announced that he would confront Netanyahu on his financial policies. Netanyahu at the time was trying to work on a consensual image, so he cancelled his appearance. We told all the reporters that Braverman had frightened Bibi away, and they all came to cover his appearance." Braverman eventually came third in the primaries. AFTER THE elections, Finer decided to leave civilian life and joined the IDF's Spokesman Unit for six months. He was supposed to set up a special center for managing media crises. "The aim was to allow the IDF to get a grip on events in the media before they got out of hand. In today's media environment you've got at the most 15 minutes to try to take the initiative and shape the breaking news to your advantage." But before the new unit could get off the ground, the Lebanon war broke out and he took charge of the unit's rapid-reaction team. After being used to formulating media strategy and crafting the message himself, Finer had to take into consideration the multiple sensitivities of the unwieldy military machine "On the day when eight Golani Brigade soldiers were killed in Bint Jbeil in the morning, the media couldn't report on the deaths until all the families had been properly notified, so as usual they were reporting a 'difficult battle.' At four in the afternoon, when the live coverage began on the TV channels, all the military correspondents lined up and began criticizing the army, while the viewers began fearing the worst. It could have been terrible for the soldiers' morale. "I realized that there was a news vacuum here that wouldn't be filled until the official announcement later that night. I heard there were wounded soldiers from the battle in [Haifa's] Rambam Hospital, so I called our representative there and told him to find me someone for interviews. They found a wounded soldier from Battalion 51, and I spoke to him on the phone and explained our problem. He agreed to speak to the TV teams and tell them how eager he was to rejoin his buddies back in Lebanon. It was a simple spin, but for a few hours until the news was released, this young soldier dominated the airwaves and allowed people to feel a lot better about the soldiers' morale." Finer rejects the severe criticism that has been leveled at the IDF's Spokesman Unit since the war. "The unit didn't fail in the war. Its job is to inform the public of what the army's doing; it's not responsible for the national hasbara strategy, that's what the Prime Minister's Office and Foreign Ministry are for. The unit is there to pass information on to the public. The problem was that in the first few weeks of the war, the only ones appearing on the media were IDF officers and by default they became the national explainer. It's just not their job. They filled the vacuum, but it's impossible for the unit to be defending Israel to the whole world on its own. "The unit organized thousands of interviews, news stories and embeddings through the war. It did more than its part in the national hasbara effort, but it shouldn't be expected to lead it. We were not to blame for the total absence of a national media policy. The prime minister and defense minister weren't there, and the level of expectations of us was unrealistic. "The press criticized the fact that only IDF officers appeared at the daily briefings, but that wasn't our fault. There should have been representatives of the civilian departments, but they just didn't come. There should have been a national team, coordinating the media effort, taking the initiative instead of passively waiting for reporters to call with questions. There are so many things we could have done. No one thought how can we make a campaign out of the civil casualties, for example. Why didn't we take media crews from around the world to see the Arab casualties of Katyushas? We could have brought Italian reporters to Christian casualties, that would have caused an uproar in the Vatican, but no one was there to take the initiative." THE WAR didn't give Finer much chance to exercise his talent for creating visual media images. "If we were fighting against Syria, then we could bomb Assad's palace and a team from the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit would plant an Israeli flag on the ruins and that would be your great victory photograph. But with Hizbullah there are no symbols, they are a shady and elusive enemy. Even when you're beating them, there are no defining pictures. "I joked during the war that we should have tried to recreate the moment when the US Army toppled Saddam's statue in Baghdad. Perhaps we could have made our own statue of [Hizbullah leader Hassan] Nasrallah, smuggled it into Bint Jbeil and then filmed a Merkava tank pulling it down while Christian Lebanese danced around." In November, Finer finished his IDF stint and now he's back in the private sector, this time trying his luck as an independent media consultant. "Beyond the business perspective, I have an ambition to change the way Israel presents its case. Money, after all, isn't everything and I believe my destiny is to transform Israel's image." He has a list of recommendations for Israel's media ambassadors. "We're still puffed up with pride from 1967, unable to show any vulnerability because we're such machos that we can only show F-16s and special-ops units. Perhaps if we weren't so afraid to show our weak moments, people might identify with us. Weakness is also a sign of humanity. Instead, TV viewers around the world associate Israel only with occupying armies and poor Palestinians. "The key word should be initiative. If we had a real national hasbara team to push different kinds of stories, then perhaps instead of waiting around for the next Beit Hanun or Kafr Kana, we could change the whole international perception of Israel, show that we're about a whole lot of other things besides terror. Once we change the general image of who we are, it will be much easier to market Israel - even when there is terror."