When Daniel Mael, a 22-year-old Brandeis senior, returned to campus for his final semester last week, he was advised by university police not to walk anywhere alone.
“My lifestyle on campus has to be altered to ensure my safety,” said Mael, a Jewish student originally from Newton, Mass., who met with Brandeis security officials over winter break to discuss details. “We’re still figuring out the specifics.”
These added security precautions were set in motion after an article Mael wrote shortly before winter break sparked outrage among the Brandeis student body and beyond. According to Mael, he and his family have received threats of physical violence since.
The article, published on the conservative news website Truth Revolt, criticized fellow Brandeis student Khadijah Lynch’s inflammatory tweets after the funeral of two slain New York police officers.
“I have no sympathy for the nypd officers who were murdered today,” tweeted Lynch, a junior who served in a student leadership position in the African and Afro-American studies department. Lynch has since stepped down from the role and made her previously public twitter account private.
Lynch’s tweets went on to lambast America (“F— this f—ing country,” read one) and talk about violence (“i need to get my gun license. asap” and “amerikkka needs an intifada. enough is enough”).
As the controversy grew, some students pushed for Lynch to be expelled while others backed her, defending her right to free speech and criticizing Mael for placing her in danger by publicizing her tweets.
In an email to the student body, Michael Piccione, a member of the 2014-15 student conduct board, accused Mael of violating several codes of student conduct and compromising Lynch’s safety by “exposing” her tweets to Mael’s “largely white supremacist following.” He called on the Brandeis community to “condemn the threatening and hateful comments she [Lynch] has received and stand up for the principle of social justice on which Brandeis was founded.”
Piccione also requested a “no contact order” against Mael on Dec. 28, which was briefly put into effect and prevented Mael from being in the same room with Piccione. The order has since been lifted.
Though the immediate heat following the article’s publication has subsided, the incident caused some to speculate that Mael’s staunchly pro-Israel stance played a role in backlash he received from fellow students.
“Mael getting death threats makes sense — he puts himself in the spotlight,” said Rebecca Sternberg, a junior on campus who is on the board of the Brandeis Zionist Alliance, a student group that celebrates the apolitical aspects of Israel, including art and culture.
Though Sternberg sympathizes with Mael’s pro-Israel stance, she disagreed with his “tactics.” “I have less sympathy for Mael than for Khadijah,” she said. “Khadijah didn’t try and put herself in the spotlight, she was forced into it.”
David Eden, chief administrative officer at Hillel International and a veteran editor and columnist, said, “There’s no doubt that as a high-profile Israel activist on campus, Daniel was a target on and off campus.”
Eden, who taught journalism at John Carroll University in Ohio and at the United Arab Emirates University in Abu Dhabi said “Mael did his job as a journalist” and “used his First Amendment rights” to report on a student leader’s controversial public statements. “The larger pro-Israel community has been shocked and amazed by the activity against Mael on campus,” he said.
Daniel Kasdan, a recent Brandeis graduate, said his Facebook newsfeed was “exploding” about the incident over winter break, as Brandeis students weighed in.
Kasdan agreed that Mael is somewhat of a marked man on campus because of his strong conservative standpoints. “Mael is consistently a vocal supporter of conservative causes,” he said. “People who either agree with him politically or find his views objectionable are using this case as a rallying point, either for or against,” he said.
Mael is viewed as a “challenge” to Bradeis’ more “liberal crowd,” said Kasdan. “Mael is viewed as the last refuge for the pro-Israel camp.”
Sternberg agreed that Mael’s proudly conservative viewpoints, most of which are not largely shared by his fellow students, are at the issue’s core. “Brandeis is a super-liberal school, and people will automatically take the liberal side,” she said.
The “liberal side” of the issue became increasingly murky, as articles on free speech and its limitations abounded. In one particularly well-circulated response, Alan Dershowitz, the noted former Harvard Law School professor known for his staunch defense of Israel defended Mael’s freedom of expression.
“So welcome to the topsy-turvy world of the academic hard left, where bigoted speech by fellow hard leftists is protected, but counter-expression is labeled as ‘embarrassment,’ ‘incitement’ and ‘bullying,’” wrote Dershowitz.
Still, even Brandeis students sympathetic with Mael’s viewpoint defended Lynch’s freedom of expression.
“I personally don’t agree with anything Khadijah said but I do think she has the right to express herself,” wrote Rachel Dobkin, a member of the the Brandeis Orthodox Organization, in an online correspondence. “No one agrees with her that I know of, and I think as an institution that values dialogue about important societal issues, it’s revolting that people wanted her expelled.”
Another Jewish student, who requested anonymity because he was “scared Daniel will come after me next,” said that Mael’s “polarizing” positions have driven a wedge between different segments of the Jewish community on campus.
“He’s created two camps,” he said, the “J Street folks,” a reference to the dovish pro-Israel lobby group, “and the Hillel folks,” The student, a junior, said he’s “personally intrigued” by J Street’s mission, but afraid to get more involved lest his friends at Hillel feel “betrayed.”
“I feel very guilty about not taking a public stand for Daniel, but he keeps antagonizing people,” he said.
To be sure, Mael is no stranger to taking a public stance against another student. On Jan. 2, the Wall Street Journal published an article headlined “How to Fight the Campus Speech Police: Get a Good Lawyer” detailing Mael’s yearlong dispute with Eli Philip, the head of Brandeis J Street U, the organization’s campus arm. The article describes how Mael hired a lawyer to defend himself against harassment claims brought against him by Philip.
J Street officials declined to comment on the incident. They also declined to comment on the Lynch incident. Philip declined to comment as well.
Mael was also involved in a kerfuffle with Brandeis J Street U board member Talia Lepson, who Mael accused of verbally harassing him. According to Mael, Lepson responded to his “Shabbat shalom” with “Jews hate you.” Mael reported the case to university police. Though the case went no further, there was a sprinkling of media coverage.
“These repeated incidents make Brandeis look really bad, and students resent that,” said Sarah, a Brandeis senior who preferred only to use her first name to avoid getting involved in the politics of the situation. Sarah, who is an actively pro-Israel student on campus, said she feels that Brandeis is a “comfortable place” to be an Israel supporter.
Andrew Flagel, senior vice president for students and enrollment at Brandeis, encouraged further dialogue, which he called “the best disinfectant.” He added that “Brandeis welcomes its students to express different viewpoints, even those with which people radically disagree.”
Regarding the “no contact order” briefly issued against Mael, Flagel said, “It’s not unusual to ask students for timeouts in communication with one another.”
Still, after all that has happened, Mael feels abandoned by his fellow students.
“I’m deeply disappointed by the reaction of the Brandeis community,” said Mael, who chose to attend Brandeis because his grandfather had been a member of the 1955 graduating class. “Some students have reached out to me privately with support. Some even made fake email accounts to communicate with me. The intimidation that many students feel on their college campus is chilling.”
Tal Fortgang, a sophomore at Princeton University, sympathizes deeply with Mael. He encountered a similarly overwhelming response when his article, “Checking My Privilege,” went viral last year. In the article Fortgang, the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, defended his perceived “privilege” as a well-educated white male, attributing his opportunities to the sacrifices of his grandparents. The piece, which touched upon “firebrand racial issues,” incited high emotions. The article was even called “an act of violence” by some students, Fortgang said.
“Daniel is going through what I went through, only a far more severe and prolonged version,” said Fortgang, who is originally from New Rochelle. “There is no accounting for people not rushing to his defense.”
Still, even from an outsider’s perspective, Fortgang agreed that there is more to the situation than meets the eye.
“Daniel’s hawkish, unwavering support of Israel is not tangential in this case. There is a strange alliance between certain political views and other causes,” he said. “Clearly Daniel is a man of great integrity. I hope he stands strong.”