Jews, as a matter of tradition, do not proselytize, and neither do they tolerate it from others.
So it comes as no surprise that a new evangelical channel, recently launched on Israeli cable television and dedicated to taking the gospel of Jesus “into the homes and lives and hearts of the Jewish people,” would set off a storm.
The Hebrew-language channel Shelanu is the Israeli affiliate of God TV, an international Christian media network that broadcasts in some 200 countries around the world.
What was not expected was that the outcry would be loudest among those Israelis known for their deep ties to evangelicals: religious, right-wing Jews. These two groups, after all, share a common interest in Israel controlling the West Bank (an area they refer to as “Judea and Samaria” or “the Biblical Heartland”) and a common disdain for Palestinian rights.
And yet, leading the campaign – both on- and offline – to get the new evangelical channel taken off the air is a group of Israelis who regularly lead Christian tours of the “Biblical Heartland”; who raise money among Christians for projects in the West Bank settlements; who organize and host interfaith Bible classes; and who provide Israel’s Christian allies with news from the Holy Land suited to their particular interests.
What has riled them so much?
“I’m trying to convince other Israelis that we can start to trust Christians once again, and that they do not have ulterior motives – and, lo and behold, God TV is demonstrating that there are in fact very clear strong ulterior motives in their support for Israel,” said Rabbi Tuly Weisz, an Orthodox rabbi who immigrated to Israel from the United States and has been engaged ever since in creating bridges between Israel and the international evangelical community.
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“That shatters the faith of people like me, who had hoped we were making a difference in Jewish-Christian relations,” he added.
God TV signed a seven-year contract with Israeli cable television company Hot to host the channel. More than 700,000 Israeli households subscribe to the provider, which controls nearly half the multichannel market in the country.
The new channel was officially launched last week to coincide with Israeli Independence Day.
A few days later, the Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Council said it was conducting an investigation to determine whether Shelanu had violated the terms of its license. That license, which had been awarded by the regulatory body, prohibits any programming that wields “undue influence” on viewers. This would include proselytizing.
Weisz said that people like him, dedicated to improving Jewish-Christian relations, were “devastated” that the new channel had been approved by an Israeli regulatory body.
“It is entirely damaging to everything I and others in the religious community, who love Christian Zionists, have been working toward,” said Weisz, who is the publisher of Israel365 – a daily newsletter distributed to some 250,000 Christian Zionists around the world. “It sets us back 10 years.”
Christian Friends of Israeli Communities raises about $1 million a year for West Bank settlement projects, with almost all of the donations coming from evangelicals. Its founder and Israel director, Sondra Baras, said her relationship with her Christian partners and donors has long been based on their willingness “to set aside any evangelizing agenda.”
“That has been the conditions that we and others like us put before our Christian friends all the time, and it has been our stated policy since we started 22 years ago,” she said. “One of the things we’ve been doing is trying to get Christians to understand how offensive this is, because many of them have been taught since childhood that Jews have just been waiting to be saved. They have no idea that we are very comfortable with who we are.”
When Baras first ventured into this line of work, there was considerable opposition among Orthodox Jews living in the settlements – especially their rabbinical leaders, who feared these Christians were secretly out to convert them. Over the years, the opposition has dwindled as such fears have proven to be ungrounded.
“Unfortunately, though, there are still some big, powerful people out there who can’t let go of this evangelizing, and that CEO who says he’s going to bring the gospel here in Hebrew – he’s not the kind of guy I’m friendly with at all,” Baras said. “I want nothing to do with him.”
She was referring to a video message, announcing the launch of Shelanu, in which God TV CEO Ward Simpson said the network “has been given government permission to broadcast the gospel of Jesus Christ – Yeshuah the Messiah – in Israel on cable TV in the Hebrew language. Never before, as far as we know in the history of the world, has this ever been done.”
That controversial video has since been removed from God TV’s website.
Yishai Fleisher, spokesman for the Jewish community in Hebron – a major flashpoint of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – accused God TV of “crossing a red line.”
“We honor and love and appreciate our friendship with the evangelical world. We have many shared values with these people, like a belief in the rights of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel,” he said. “However, in every relationship there are red lines, and when they are crossed, that can be painful. Missionizing is one of those red lines.”
Fleischer said it was no coincidence that he and other allies of the Christian right were leading the protest against the new cable channel.
“Because of our ties to them and our interest in their world, we were the first to know about this. And because we want to protect our relationship with them, we were the first to call it out.”