What started out as a simple birthday wish to the state of Israel has become a political hot potato at the University of Michigan, after a Jewish couple in Detroit was denied the chance to air the statement on public radio this week.
Hannan and Lisa Lis wanted to wish the Jewish homeland a happy 68th birthday on WUOM, a southeast Michigan FM station that is one of three public radio stations in the state licensed to the Ann Arbor-based university under an umbrella network known as Michigan Radio.
The couple’s donations to the station qualified them to air a personal remark known as a “day sponsorship” message.
But a station official denied the request, saying it could “compromise the station's commitment to impartiality and that it crosses over into advocacy, or could imply advocacy.”
Several days of negotiations ensued, continuing as recently as Thursday, when Lisa Lis had a 20-minute conversation with Michigan Radio's general manager.
The brouhaha was first reported earlier this week by the Deadline Detroit news website. Hannan Lis is a native of Haifa, Israel. One of the couple’s four children, Mataan, actually attended UM and graduated last year. All four of their children have dual U.S.-Israeli citizenship.
“There’s so much anti-Israel sentiments and rhetoric and lies out there, and I just wanted something positive about Israel to be announced on the radio,” Lisa Lis told AMI Newswire. “Many people just say ‘happy anniversary’ to their spouse. When they offered a day sponsorship to me, I genuinely and publicly wanted to wish Israel happy birthday from my husband and myself.
“We respect the university and the relationship and connections it has with Israel. The radio station, on the other hand, somehow feels wishing ‘Happy Birthday’ to Israel is adversarial to them. And I can’t for the life of me figure out why. Everybody we talk to is surprised and shocked. I don’t see how ‘Happy Birthday’ is political.”
Hannan Lis said the couple is pressing their case, even for a belated birthday wish to Israel, but that they are taking pains to do so politely.
“We’re definitely not happy with this, but we’re trying to be not terribly emotional,” he said. “We have a very high level of respect for NPR and Michigan Radio. So really we’re trying to affect some pressure without going ballistic.
“Do I feel like this is a blacklisting of Israel? Of course. Do I feel that this really is a not-cool way of dealing with a legitimate request? Of course. But I’ve been around long enough to not take this too personally and I think we’ll work through it. I want to make it very clear that I think highly of the university. This is really an isolated issue.”
University of Michigan spokesman Rick Fitzgerald told AMI Newswire he understands why the situation may be baffling to some, but that the request is simply not allowed under the station’s rules.
He pointed to a page on Michigan Radio’s website that explains the day sponsorship rules.
That page states, in part: “Day sponsorships must be personal in nature. They may not include promotional, commercial or messages that Michigan Radio deems would negatively impact Michigan Radio’s reputation for impartiality. Language referencing political campaigns, candidacies, religious convictions or legislation will not be accepted.”
“These are intended for personal, person-to-person messages and this falls outside those guidelines,” Fitzgerald said, adding he was unaware of any breakthrough in compromise talks between the Lises and the station.
Michigan Radio’s website advertises itself as “the state’s most listened-to public radio services,” with stations in Ann Arbor, southeast Michigan and western Michigan, reaching 80 percent of the state’s population and 500,000 residents alone in the southern part of the state.
Israel became an independent state on May 14, 1948, under a partition plan established six months earlier by the United Nations that temporarily assigned authority over the region to Great Britain.