Fake News: Shelanu TV has been suspended, not closed down

Inside the Shelanu TV studio (Photo: God TV)

UPDATE July 1, 2020: Shelanu TV will shut down on cable – and reopen online

Many Israeli news outlets, including Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post, used misleading headlines on Sunday claiming that the “missionary” channel, Shelanu, has been closed down.

A closer look into the articles, however, reveals that Shelanu’s license has merely been suspended and that the channel, run by Messianic Jews, can reapply for a license. The authorities imposed a difficult bureaucratic hurdle, which might render the channel suspended for a while, but it has not been shut down.

In fact, Shelanu continues to air while the cable company, Hot, has seven days to take it down and appeal the decision if it chooses.

Hot applied in the spring to the Cable and Satellite council for a license. It was approved in April 2020 by the council head, Asher Biton, without going through the council itself. Biton has now suspended the license.

“The channel I approved is not the one you are airing,” he claimed, saying that he approved a Christian channel marketed to Christian viewers while Shelanu, he said, is actually geared toward Jews. He noted that while that is not necessarily forbidden, it should have been stated clearly in the application. Had he known this, he would have called for a hearing in front of the full council rather than approve it himself, he said.

KNI obtained a copy of the license which clearly states that Shelanu is a Christian channel and that “the channel is intended for viewers in Israel” without specifying which faith community was its target audience.

Biton was appointed by the previous minister of communications, Dudi Amsalem. After the new coalition government formed, Amsalem became minister of Cyber and Digital, a new office created to accommodate the inflated number of ministers in the new government. Amsalem appointed Biton to be the CEO of his office which means Biton is about to end his role as chairman of the Cable and Satellite council.

Avi Mizrachi, a board member of Shelanu TV, explained to KNI what was really happening.

“What Biton is doing is illegal. It’s his very last decision before he leaves the council for another job. He just doesn’t want ‘approved a missionary channel’ on his resume, that’s all,” Mizrachi said. “We have asked them to let us keep airing until we reapply. Biton claims that we deceived him, but that is not true. We were very upfront throughout the entire process. We said that we will air Christian and Messianic content in Hebrew to Israelis, and he signed the license, in black and white. ‘It was a mistake,’ he told me. He even said, ‘You can reapply for a new license, and there is no reason they shouldn’t give it to you.’ In other words, he knows our channel will air, he just doesn’t want his name to be on it.”

Ron Cantor, God TV’s representative in Israel, agreed.

“Biton is spreading this lie to reporters that we violated our license,” Cantor told KNI. “He is embarrassed, he didn’t realize that this would blow back on him by the Orthodox, so he is under tremendous pressure. He is leaving the office, and he tells us to reapply, so when we get the license it will be signed by his successor, not him. My guess is that he wants to show the Orthodox that he did what he could and took us off the air.”

Orthodox groups claim victory

The fact that this is a mere bureaucratic hurdle based on internal politics didn’t stop the anti-missionary organization Yad l’Achim from declaring victory on its Facebook page.

“The ministry of communications has heard the plea from Yad l’Achim – the missionary channel will close,” they wrote, incorrectly applying the decision to the Ministry of Communications. They quoted a statement that said, “We alerted the previous communications minister, Dudi Amsalem, that the missionaries created this channel to preach to hundreds of thousands of Israelis and convert them to Christianity, and that they received their license fraudulently.”

A religious news outlet, Haredim 10, used similar terms in its report.

“The struggle of Yad l’Achim succeeded – the Ministry of Communications have given the missionary channel seven days to close. The channel turns to Jews with Christian content, in violation of its license. Yad l’Achim thanks Knesset Member Rabbi Moshe Gafni for getting involved and meeting with (Amsalem) to end the channel.”

“In order to receive the license, the missionaries told the authorities it was a Christian channel, while hiding their true intent – a channel of religious propaganda aiming to convert Jews to Christianity, meant to reach the hundreds of thousands of viewers who subscribe to Hot,” reporter Yonni Green continued. “Yad l’Achim discovered their true intent and tried to stop it, but the ministry believed the missionaries and granted the license a few months ago. But Yad l’Achim did not give up. Their investigators found many quotes by the head of the channel, Ward Simpson, proving their true intent, and sent the proof to the decision makers. Because of the hard evidence, the license was revoked.”

Simpson is the CEO of God TV, the parent company of Shelanu. In a pitch aired on God TV’s website about the new Hebrew channel in Israel, Simpson said, “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.” The video has since been taken down and Simpson apologized for it, but not before setting off the firestorm that opened up Shelanu to investigation.

An online forum, rotter.net, mostly visited by the religious sector, also reported on the closure of the channel. Interestingly, Benzion Gopstein, head of the extreme and violent anti-missionary organization Lehava, took credit for the suspension.

“Our organization has warned against this from the start. We are happy they realize that in Israel there is no place for missionary activity, which throughout history was a key ingredient in the persecution of the Jewish people,” he said.

A reader took issue with that in the comments.

“Gopstein, we both know that Yad l’Achim are the ones who struggled for this closure, not you. You are just trying to take credit for it,” the reader wrote.

Amazingly, a few people commenting in religious forums were wary of these tactics.

“Closing people’s mouths should not be our way. Saying that ‘kids might see it’ is just demagoguery,” one wrote. “Kids don’t watch these obscure channels.”

Another reader simply asked, “Is this Iran?”

While articles in the Orthodox media are rife with gloating, the secular Israeli media has been more toned down but still misleading with headlines that Israel has “shut down” the channel as opposed to just suspending it.

In these Israeli news outlets, the talkbacks were split 50-50 between positive and negative feedback. Some claimed that missionary activity has no place in Israel, while others said that religious Jews trying to convince atheists to believe in God is no different.

KNI speaks with Yad l’Achim

KNI confronted the Yad l’Achim spokesman noting that Shelanu did not violate its license, was not shut down and that this was merely a bureaucratic hurdle allowing organizations such as his to make declarations of a fake victory.

The Yad l’Achim spokesman was defensive.

“Look, I don’t make the laws and the rules, we just bring the data to the decision makers,” he said.

On its Facebook page, however, Yad l’Achim said that it has been tirelessly lobbying lawmakers for months about this – hardly just “bringing them the data.”

Future of Shelanu

Shelanu is preparing to move forward in face of this opposition.

“We are here to serve the whole body of believers in Israel,” Mizrachi told KNI. “There are over 100,000 Christian Arabs, 20,000 Messianic Jews, and thousands of evangelical Christians who live in this country. Many of us are Israelis and speak Hebrew. If the channel is denied the right to operate, that is discrimination against all of them. Shelanu is a national Christian Messianic TV channel in Hebrew for the Israeli body. We need your prayers now, more than ever. We call on all born again believers, Messianic Jews, Arab Christians, Evangelical Christians, to pray against this shutting down of Shelanu.”

Mizrachi said Shelanu will reapply for this license and, if denied, will consider filing a civil claim of discrimination.

“They can’t deny us freedom of speech and freedom of worship. What they did now is that they found a loophole to reverse our license due to a technical issue,” he said.

Cantor added in a written statement that, “The Shelanu board, made up of Israeli Jews and Arabs, hope the council approves the new channel broadcast request and thus avoids a severe diplomatic incident with hundreds of millions of pro-Israel evangelical Christians worldwide. They see Israel as a democracy that upholds freedom of speech, religion and expression.”

In a video posted on Facebook, Cantor also stressed that believers should continue to support the State of Israel.

“I don’t want you to blame Israel for this. Israel is a large country of 6.5 million Jews. This was the decision of one person, Asher Biton, as the last thing he did on his last day in office,” Cantor said. “We have freedom of speech, freedom of the press and I have no doubt that we will be able to go on with our cable channel.”