God TV is one of the three largest Christian broadcasting networks in the world. It is the only one to transmit globally from Israel and has been doing so for the past 18 years.
The overwhelming majority of Israelis were probably unaware of its existence, but that all changed earlier this month after God TV launched a new Hebrew-language channel on Israeli cable television.
It is doubtful that even a handful of Israel’s 700,000 cable television subscribers noticed that Channel 182 had been added to their subscription package free of charge – until a video message suddenly surfaced online that seemed to reveal its true agenda.
“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,” God TV CEO Ward Simpson said, in a 13-minute fundraising video announcing the launch.
If there is something that unites Israeli Jews of all colors and stripes, it is their deep discomfort with proselytizing. As Faydra Shapiro, founding director of the Israel Center for Jewish-Christian Relations, notes: “Quite naturally, there’s a feeling that Israel should be a place where Jewish life can flourish, free from the threat that’s perceived in evangelism.”
Within a matter of hours of the video being reported by Haaretz, the Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Council – the regulatory body that operates under the auspices of the Communications Ministry – was inundated with complaints. They included some particularly frantic messages from several government ministers and the Chief Rabbinate.
Asher Biton, the chairman of the council, launched an immediate investigation. Hot, the Israeli cable television provider, had indeed received a license from him to broadcast the new channel called Shelanu (Hebrew for “Ours,” as in “Jesus is all of ours”). But from what he recalled, it was supposed to be a channel directed at Christian viewers aimed at strengthening their faith.
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Overnight, the video message that had caused the storm was taken down and God TV issued a clarification: The network had no intention of trying to convert Jews to Christianity, Simpson said in a new video message; it merely wanted them to accept Jesus as their messiah. To most Israelis, he seemed to be digging himself even deeper into a hole.
Last week, Biton notified Hot that he was considering suspending its license to broadcast Shelanu, subject to a hearing. In a letter to the heads of the cable television provider, he accused them of not being truthful when they applied for the license. Had he known that the intent of the channel was to spread the gospel among Jewish subscribers, he wrote, he would not have been so quick to approve their request. Hot was given a week to respond but has since requested an extension of two weeks. The regulator agreed to a one-week extension.
‘Supporting young ladies that are pro-life’
God TV was founded in the United Kingdom 25 years ago by two South African expats – Rory and Wendy Alec. Rory served as CEO from 1995 until 2014, when he resigned after confessing to a “moral failure” in his marriage. Wendy Alec held the position for two years before handing it over in 2016 to Ward Simpson – a car dealer from Barbados, now based in Orlando. Before taking over God TV, Simpson served as the network’s global operations manager, and prior to that headed the Brownsville Revival School of Ministry.
In 2002, the network moved its broadcast uplink to Israel, and from there began to expand around the world. Today, it broadcasts in 200 countries and claims to reach 250 million homes around the world.
Ironically, for almost all its 18 years in Israel, God TV has not been involved in television production. What, then, has it been doing all this time? Nearly a decade ago, the organization first drew the attention of left-wing activists in Israel when it donated $500,000 to plant trees in the Negev (in partnership with the Jewish National Fund). Local Bedouin tribe members claimed the project was an attempt to push them off their lands, and about half a dozen demonstrators were injured in protests that erupted against the so-called God TV Forest.
The organization also leads many evangelical tours to Israel, which serve as a key source of revenue. And in one of his recent video messages, Simpson noted that God TV supported various “humanitarian aid” causes in Israel, including a veiled reference to the anti-abortion movement. “We’ve been supporting those young ladies that are pro-life, and they have their agencies that help ladies that are pregnant and they don’t want to have the babies, so they give them choices of adoption and help them, and so on,” he said.
According to Ron Cantor, the regional director of God TV based in Israel, the organization has donated “millions of dollars” to Jewish causes in Israel. When asked for a list of beneficiaries, however, he did not respond.
A review of its recent U.S. tax forms shows that God TV brings in about $7 million a year in revenues, just under half of which is from donations. Among the top nine top employees at Angel Christian Television Trust – the name God TV is registered under as a nonprofit based in Orlando, Florida – are Simpson and his two sons, Rafael and Nathan. According to its tax filings for 2017, the most recent available, the CEO earned a salary of $165,000 a year. It is noteworthy that Wendy Alec (now Wendy Stephens), who did not hold an official position in the network that year, continued to draw a salary as well.
The tax filings show that the main beneficiaries of God TV’s grant-making activities in the United States are Jewish messianic congregations based in the country.
‘Are you sure this is OK?’
God TV is but one of many Christian evangelical charities and television networks active in Israel. It was the first, though, to break a golden rule: You do not engage in proselytizing, at least not overtly.
How could an Israeli regulatory body have awarded a license to a channel unabashedly bent on converting Jews – or, at the very least, getting them to accept the fundamental tenets of Christianity?
It might be that it saw no reason for concern, given that it had already awarded a license to God TV in the past. Indeed, for a period of three months during late 2016 and early 2017, God TV was broadcast on Hot. But back then, it only aired content in English – the same sort of content it broadcasts around the world, directed mainly at Christians.
When it applied for the license on God TV’s behalf back then, according to Biton, Hot described the channel as “faith-based” and “geared toward Christian audiences.” At the time, Hot was reaching its bandwidth capacity and because there didn’t seem to be much interest in what God TV had to offer, Hot dropped the channel after a very short period.
In April 2019, apparently seeking new sources of revenue, a Hot executive approached God TV and asked whether they would be interested in broadcasting again on the cable platform. “I immediately asked them, ‘Can we broadcast in Hebrew?’ And the answer was an emphatic yes,” Cantor wrote in an email to Haaretz. “I was quite stunned myself. That began a year-long process of finding funding, agreeing on and signing contracts and, yes, getting approval from the regulatory body to broadcast as messianic Jewish Israelis in Hebrew.”
He added: “There has not been one moment that we were not honest with Hot or the regulatory commission. We are not ashamed of who we are and what we believe. We were told many times that laws have changed and there was no issue with our programming. Certainly, if we are doing something sneaky, we would not have announced it to the world. We were completely up-front and honest, and even asked the representatives from Hot, many times, ‘Are you sure this is OK?’ and we were told repeatedly that it was.”
In an internal newsletter distributed in February to members of the Israeli messianic community (Jews who accept Jesus as the messiah, aka “Jews for Jesus”) Cantor shared more details. He revealed that God TV had considered turning down the offer because it had no money to pay Hot, when Simpson suddenly received a call from a donor.
“Two weeks or so earlier, Ward had told this donor about the Israel project,” Cantor relayed in the newsletter. “The fellow said, ‘I can’t stop thinking about the Israel cable channel. I will pay for it for seven years!’ The next thing I knew, we were signing contracts!”
When subsequently asked about the identity of the mysterious donor, Cantor replied that the person was “a wonderful private individual who appreciates their privacy.”
Though neither Hot nor God TV would divulge how much God TV is paying for the right to broadcast under the new contract, industry executives estimate it could be as much as 1 million shekels ($280,000) a year.
‘Health and wealth gospel’
It is not that the council would have necessarily rejected a request to broadcast a channel that seeks to spread the gospel among Jews, as Biton indicated in his warning letter to Hot last week. It’s just that the issue never came up – not now and not ever before.
“I can’t even tell you whether we’d approve it or not because it’s not something we’ve ever discussed,” Biton tells Haaretz. “Before we can even decide, we would have to study the issue thoroughly. What does Israeli law say about proselytizing? Would the court allow this? What do other countries do? But we never looked into any of these questions because the information we received about the new channel didn’t require it.”
Under Israeli law, it is forbidden to proselytize to a person under 18 years of age without the consent of his or her parent. It is also forbidden to offer material benefits in exchange for conversion. God TV tends to gear its global programs to younger audiences, meaning it could find itself in violation of the law in Israel.
The license Shelanu received also prohibits programming that wields “undue influence” on viewers. The case could be made that proselytizing falls under that category.
Stephen Parsons, a retired Anglican clergyman who writes a popular blog on abuse in the church – “whether it be sexual, financial or emotional” – says God TV is one of many Christian TV networks that base their business model on what he describes as “health and wealth gospel.”
“The message is that if you have enough faith, you will become healthy and wealthy – so you’ve got to give. And the way you give is to the TV channel,” he says, in a phone call from his home in England. “You’re supposed to be giving to God’s work, but it seems you’re giving to maintain the lifestyles of people who are running the broadcasts.”
The launch of a Hebrew-language channel in Israel, he says, would provide an outfit like God TV with an ideal opportunity for fundraising. “They can now tell people that by broadcasting in Israel they will have a new audience, but they will of course need money to support this new outlet,” Parsons explains. “The way these networks operate is by getting lots of small donations from lots of people, many of them economically disadvantaged – people who are led to believe that giving away their money will make them wealthy one day.”
Michal Rafaeli Kaduri, the former vice president for regulatory affairs and content at satellite television provider Yes (Hot’s competitor in the multichannel market), agrees that fundraising opportunities are a key motive for Christian channels broadcasting in Israel, noting that God TV is certainly not the only one.
“For them, it’s about being able to go back to their churches and say, ‘We’re in the Holy Land and we need your support to stay there,’” she says.
No official viewing figures are available for these channels, but as one industry executive put it, “It tends toward zero. These channels are completely under the radar.” So much so that a few years ago, when one Christian channel was mistakenly taken off the air in Israel, it took two weeks until a subscriber noticed and reported it.
Assuming the main purpose of Shelanu is to serve as a fundraising tool for God TV, then it is clear where those funds, once raised, will go. Largely overlooked in Simpson’s famous video message that disappeared from the internet was this key sentence: “This channel will be a powerful tool in the hands of the underfunded messianic congregations, empowering them to reach their people with the good news of Yeshua.”
There is no doubt in the mind of Tovia Singer, an Orthodox rabbi who runs counter-missionary organization Outreach Judaism, that this is the true goal of the new television channel.
“None of the messianic congregations in Israel operate independently,” he notes. “They all rely on support from Christian evangelicals, predominantly from the United States. And what they will do is go to their churches in America and show clips of how badly messianic [Jews] are treated in Israel to gain sympathy and raise money that way.”
Shelanu has said that 70 percent of its content will be locally produced. Many of the local programs currently being aired are nothing more than personal testimonies of Israeli messianics talking about how they came to embrace Jesus. In a country like Israel, where missionary activity is scorned, approaching individuals in the comfort of their homes certainly has advantages over handing out flyers in the streets.
It is a point not lost on Shelanu fundraisers. As Cantor noted in that internal newsletter to members of the Israeli messianic community in February: “When someone watches Shelanu TV and sees an Israeli sharing their testimony in Hebrew, they will be encouraged to go to our website and hear more testimonies, read articles and books about Yeshua and even speak with someone. ... People will be able to learn everything they need to know about Yeshua and salvation without leaving their home.”
According to Singer, some 20,000 Israelis identify as messianic Jews. Many of them, he says, are immigrants from the former Soviet Union not regarded as Jewish by religious law (halakha). In a recent article on Kehila, an online news site for the messianic community in Israel, members were asked to respond to recent government threats to shut down Shelanu.
One comment in particular shed light on their political orientation. “Why do messianic Jews still vote for [Benjamin] Netanyahu when he puts people like this in the government?” an unidentified Israeli messianic Jew was quoted as saying, referring to a statement by Likud MK David Amsalem (then still serving as communications minister) that the government would never allow a missionary TV channel to broadcast in Israel “at any time or in any way.”
Cantor, the driving force behind Shelanu, moved to Israel from the United States 17 years ago and lives in Tel Aviv. He grew up in a Jewish home in Maryland, and by his own testimony was a “drug-using agnostic” before embracing Jesus at age 18.
As he likes to point out, he is “married to a sabra,” referring to native-born Israelis, watched his “three daughters go through the IDF” and pays “a lot!!” of taxes. It is clearly important for him to be recognized as a bona fide Israeli. But he also has some important American yichus: The head of God TV’s operations in Israel is a cousin to Eric Cantor, the former House majority leader and the highest-ranking Jewish legislator in U.S. history.
Ron Cantor says he has known Simpson for 20 years and describes him as his “best friend.” Indeed, the two often appear together in photos and videos, whether attending the Israeli government’s annual Christian Media Summit or at fundraising gigs in America.
Cantor proudly notes that his best friend was chosen to introduce Israeli President Reuven Rivlin at a Christian Media Summit last November and was recently presented with a special “Israel ambassador” award by Yariv Levin, the former tourism minister and newly appointed Knesset speaker.
Cantor took up his role in God TV in Israel after Simpson was named CEO four years ago.
Before that, he says, he worked as a Bible teacher and congregational leader in Israel and abroad. He presently leads what he describes as a “pro-Israel” messianic congregation in Israel. “That is my full-time job,” he says, “while serving with God TV on the side.”
Late last year, God TV hosted a dinner for 120 leaders of the local messianic community, Cantor revealed in his internal newsletter. At the dinner, Simpson announced that the new channel, Shelanu, would “more or less” belong to these messianic Jews.
“What was amazing was that the Hot cable executive came to this dinner and addressed the gathered messianic leaders,” Cantor wrote. “He was just as thrilled as we were, though he is not a believer. He expressed his excitement in being involved in something as ‘historic’ as the first Hebrew-language gospel channel in history!”
Hot submitted its new request for a license to broadcast God TV in April 2019. It attached the exact same documents from the previous request submitted in 2016, with the exact same description of the channel, according to sources who have viewed the paperwork. The license was quickly approved by the council. But because God TV had yet to secure its mystery backer, the license expired 120 days later.
Last June, Hot notified the council that it was still intent on broadcasting God TV and that it was considering dubbing or translating the programs into Hebrew, so they would be more suitable for an Israeli audience. There was no accompanying request, however, to change the overall description of the channel. A month later, Hot informed the council that it wanted to change the name of the channel from God TV to Shelanu. Again, it made no request to change the overall description.
But members of the regulatory body were starting to get suspicious and asked to see examples of the programs Shelanu planned to broadcast. All the programs they were shown were clearly directed at Christian audiences. “There was nothing that could be seen to be targeting Jews,” a source who viewed the programs says.
This March, a month before Shelanu was supposed to go on air, Hot put in a request for one last technical change in its application for yet another license: It wanted the name of the God TV international broadcast license-holder to be listed as Angel Christian Television Trust (the Orlando-registered nonprofit) rather than Angel Media Network, a corporation based in India.
The license was granted and Shelanu began broadcasting last month, on April 29. The date was chosen to coincide with Israel’s Independence Day.
Only when the complaints started piling up a week later did Biton and his inspectors at the council bother turning on their TV sets. What they saw made their jaws drop: bald-faced proselytizing in the Hebrew language.
Since Cantor insists that God TV was completely up-front with Hot about the nature of the new channel, the question arises: Did Hot deliberately mislead the regulator?
In its response to Haaretz, Hot insists it was just a middleman in the transaction, passing papers and questions back-and-forth, and is not guilty of any wrongdoing.
“Shelanu is an independent, religious channel, similar to other religious channels broadcasting in Israel,” Hot says, in a statement issued by its spokeswoman. “It obtained a license from the council and broadcasts lawfully, in accordance with the channel description, as provided by the channel itself, including mention of the fact that this is a Hebrew-language channel that broadcasts to an audience in Israel, and all the additional material sent to the council. Hot was fully transparent in its dealings and provided the council with all the necessary information, including detailed responses to all its requests for clarifications that were sent while the license was pending approval.
“[Shelanu] is an independent channel, and Hot is not involved in the content it broadcasts. Accordingly, claims by the council regarding the content broadcast were passed onto representatives of the channel so that they could address them. Hot will continue to conduct itself in accordance with the decisions of the council. That is what we did when the channel was approved, and that is what we will do should a different decision be taken,” the statement adds.
‘The real agenda’
Having suffered centuries of persecution for refusing to convert to Christianity, Jews tend to be suspicious of Christian outreach efforts. If Christians are going out of their way to be nice to them, many Jews still believe, they must have some hidden agenda. Indeed, it took many years for leaders of the settler movement – which receives considerable financial and political support from the evangelical community – to convince their fellow Israelis that these Christian friends of theirs had no such ulterior motives.
All the hard work invested in trying to prove that appeared to go down the drain with the debut of Shelanu on Hot. And while Simpson and his peers in Israel insist that their intent is not conversion, most Israelis cannot fathom how a person can remain Jewish while accepting Jesus as their messiah.
As Shapiro, from the Israel Center for Jewish-Christian Relations, notes: “I think that what a lot of Jews don’t understand is that messianic Jews don’t think of themselves as Christians at all. They understand themselves as Jews who accept Jesus as both messiah and as divine. So when God TV says they don’t want to convert Jews to Christianity, they really mean it.”
But that is unthinkable to most mainstream Jews, she says. “Mainstream Jews tend to think that it’s one or the other,” she says. “You’re either Jewish or you believe in Jesus. And that belief in Jesus makes you, by definition, a Christian.”
By pushing the envelope too far, Shapiro believes, Shelanu – an obscure television channel with hardly any appeal to the average Israeli viewer – has caused a major setback to Jewish-Christian relations.
“This development confirms every Jew’s worst fear about this new era in Jewish-Christian relations: That the Christian desire to engage with Jews is just a front, a cover for the real agenda – which is to convince us of the Christian truth,” she says.
Asked if God TV planned to take legal action if the channel is ultimately taken down, Cantor responded: “We are doing everything we can to avoid a legal battle. We are making every effort to achieve amiable understandings with Hot and the broadcasting authority, and have told all parties that we are willing to consider making certain changes necessary to our programming if they can show us any aspect that is illegal.
“We want to be fully compliant with all laws and regulations in Israel. However, as Israelis citizens, we want to ensure that our content providers’ rights to freedom of expression are protected,” Cantor added. “The messianic community serves in the IDF, is Zionist in nature and we pay our taxes. We are entitled to the same rights and freedoms as every other Israeli.”