An evangelical broadcaster who boasted of miraculously securing a TV license in Israel now risks being taken off the air over suspicions of trying to convert Jews to Christianity.
The controversy over GOD TV has put both Israel and its evangelical supporters in an awkward position, exposing tensions the two sides have long papered over.
Evangelicals, particularly in the United States, are among the strongest supporters of Israel, viewing it as the fulfillment of biblical prophecy, with some seeing it as the harbinger of a second coming of Jesus Christ and the end of days.
Israel has long welcomed evangelicals’ political and financial support, especially as their influence over the White House has risen during the Trump era, and it has largely shrugged off concerns about any hidden religious agenda.
But most Jews view any effort to convert them to Christianity as deeply offensive, a legacy of centuries of persecution and forced conversion at the hands of Christian rulers. In part because of those sensitivities, evangelicals, who believe salvation can only come through Jesus and preach the gospel worldwide, rarely target Jews.
When GOD TV, an international Christian broadcaster, reached a seven-year contract earlier this year with HOT, Israel’s main cable provider, its application stated that it would broadcast “Christian content” for an “audience of Israeli viewers” in both Hebrew and English.
In a video message that has since been taken down, GOD TV CEO Ward Simpson suggested its real aim was to convince Jews to accept Jesus as their messiah. The channel, known as Shelanu, broadcasts in Hebrew even though most Christians in the Holy Land speak Arabic.
“God has supernaturally opened the door for us to take the gospel of Jesus into the homes and lives and hearts of his Jewish people,” Simpson said in the video.
“They’ll watch secretly, they’ll watch quietly,” he added. “God is restoring his people, God is removing the blindness from their eyes.”
In a subsequent video, Simpson acknowledged that the channel was under investigation by Israeli authorities, saying that preaching about Jesus in Israel is a “very touchy subject.” He apologized for any offensive remarks and said GOD TV would comply with all regulations.
“The opposition to the channel apparently arose, not because of any content on Shelanu, but because of a poorly worded fundraising video,” stated GOD TV in a press release.
Freedom of religion is enshrined in Israeli law, and proselytizing is allowed as long as missionary activities are not directed at minors and do not involve economic coercion.
The Communications Ministry said it was investigating a “discrepancy” between the application for the license that was granted in March, which said the channel was focused on the Christian community, and its actual content, which appears to “target Jews and convince them that Jesus is the messiah.”
HOT said in a statement that it was not responsible for the channel’s content and has been “fully transparent” with authorities.
GOD TV was founded in the UK in 1995 and eventually grew into a 24-hour network with offices in several countries. Its international broadcasting licenses are held by a Florida-based nonprofit. It claims to reach 300 million households worldwide. Simpson was among the participants at the high-level Christian Media Summit hosted by Israel last year, where Haaretz reports he introduced Israeli President Reuven Rivlin.
Simpson denied trying to convert Jews to Christianity. He said Jews who accept Jesus as the messiah can continue to practice their faith, a reference to Messianic Jews.
The Messianic movement, which emerged in its modern form in the 1970s, incorporates Jewish symbols and practices—including referring to Jesus by his Hebrew name, Yeshua—but is widely seen as a form of Christianity. All major Jewish denominations reject it, and Israel considers Messianic Jews to be converts to another faith.
Messianic Jews in Israel push back against the accusations.
“In Israel and in Jewish circles, conversion is a loaded word. It is understood as leaving something to become something else,” said Lisa Loden, co-chair of the Lausanne Initiative for Reconciliation in Israel-Palestine.
“Messianic Jews avoid the term, and maintain that they remain fully Jewish when accepting Yeshua as Messiah and Lord,” she said. “But the average Jewish Israeli does not distinguish between Jews who believe in Jesus and Christians.”
GOD TV’s new Hebrew channel “surprised many of us Israeli believers,” said Dan Sered, the Tel Aviv-based chief operating officer of Jews for Jesus. “It is my hope that the opposition [Shelanu] is getting will be met with reason as it goes to the courts.”
Sered told CT that “very few Israelis watch Christian TV;” however, “Christian support for Israel as well as tourism are bolstered through this medium and I applaud that.”
Both sides in the conflict are sincere, suggests Mitch Glaser, president of New York City-based Chosen People Ministries.
“GOD TV is attempting to honestly state what they are doing,” he said. “The religious Jewish people opposed to its Hebrew programming are trying to protect secular Jewish people from becoming converts, and therefore ‘lost’ to the Jewish community.”
Many Messianic Jews, however, are rejoicing at the opportunity to demonstrate their sincerity (of still belonging to the Jewish community) to their fellow Israeli citizens. Shelanu has stated 70 percent of its content will be locally produced.
And on a popular website for the community, some are even praising the “amazing free publicity.”
“If the show was produced by a US or European Christian organization, the argument is very strong that the aim is conversion,” said Jaime Cowen, an Israeli lawyer and former president of the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations.
“The reality is that Jews believe all kinds of different things and are subject to all kinds of programming that pushes various views.
“This is a huge open door—as long as the government doesn’t shut it down.”
But this is exactly what one Christian Zionist has petitioned Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu to do, fearing that the GOD TV backlash will threaten Jewish-evangelical cooperation.
“In recent decades, millions of Christians have felt the call to stand with the State of Israel and the Jewish people with no hidden agenda,” said Laurie Cardoza-Moore, a Tennessee-based evangelical who hosts a program called “Focus on Israel” that previously aired on GOD TV.
“Any attempts to convert Jews or downgrade their religion will only sow undue hatred at a time when we should unite in the face of darkness,” she said.
Similar was Malcolm Hedding, the former executive director of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, an umbrella group for Christian Zionists. He said Christians only share their faith when asked, and denied they have any secret agenda.
“Evangelical support for Israel is not based on prophecies but on promises that God gave to Abraham 4,000 years ago,” he said. “We cannot, and should not, let the arrival of a TV channel in Israel impact negatively on the well-being of a movement that for decades now has brought about a new day in Jewish Christian relationships.”
Daniel Hummel, the author of a book on evangelicals and Israel, says Christian Zionists have “more or less learned” that Messianic Judaism’s presence in the movement is “politically unwise.”
Such statements prompted a strong rebuke from Michael Brown, Messianic Jewish host of a nationally syndicated daily talk radio show, Line of Fire.
In an op-ed for the Christian Post, he wrote that given the terrible history of church-related anti-Semitism, he “respects” that some Christian Zionists have pledged not to proselytize in their support of Israel.
Just don’t become an “enemy of the gospel.”
“I urge you with all my heart: Please do not oppose us as we share the water of life with our thirsty people,” he wrote. “Please do not withhold from them the very message that brought you salvation.
“To do so would be an act of utter cruelty towards the people you love so much.”
Regardless of the new channel’s fate, Sered at Jews for Jesus hopes any legal ruling won’t have implications for Hebrew-language gospel content online. “The internet has brought a lot of Israelis to view and be challenged by the message of Yeshua.”
However, he said, “the greatest effectiveness for conveying the message of Jesus is in the hard work of one-on-one discipleship. .. Our staff here in the land are Israeli men and women who have served in the army, grown up in Israeli schools, and can speak firsthand about the truth of gospel. Nothing is more powerful.”
Simpson says GOD TV has hired lawyers to resolve the issue and is determined to stay on the air.
“The last thing we want to do is to cause division over there,” he said. “We love Israel.”
And while praising Israel for its commitment to religious freedom in his most recent video update, Simpson urged GOD TV supporters to not let the investigation deter them from blessing the nation.
“[I] assure the Israeli authorities and citizens alike, that GOD TV is your strong ally and your friend,” he said. “We along with hundreds of millions of Christians around the world stand with you as your voice, as your advocate, and as your watchman on your walls.”
AP reporting by Joseph Krauss. Additional reporting by Jayson Casper and Jeremy Weber.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Shelanu “presented itself as producing content for Christians,” whereas its approved application states that it would broadcast “Christian content” for an “audience of Israeli viewers” in both Hebrew and English.