This story has been updated.
On Friday night, best friends and New York University students Leen Dweik and Rose Asaf attended a vigil at their school’s Islamic Center for the victims of the New Zealand mosque massacre.
One of the other attendees caught their attention: Chelsea Clinton.
The former first daughter last month tweeted to her 2.4 million followers criticizing Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) for comments about Israel that included what some saw as anti-Semitic stereotypes. “Co-signed as an American,” Clinton tweeted in response to a tweet condemning Omar. “We should expect all elected officials, regardless of party, and all public figures to not traffic in anti-Semitism.”
In the coming days and weeks, throngs of Democrats and Republicans also condemned Omar.
Dweik, a Muslim Palestinian, and Asaf, a Jewish Israeli American, took offense to Clinton’s reaction, particularly her reference to “as an American.” Was Clinton suggesting that she was more “an American” than Omar, a Somali refugee and one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress?
On Friday night, Dweik couldn’t let the moment pass without telling Clinton how she had made them feel. After the event, she confronted Clinton about her tweet, accusing her of adding to the hatred of Muslims.
“This, right here, is a result of a massacre stoked by people like you and the words that you put out into the world,” Dweik told Clinton. “And I want you to know that, and I want you to feel that deep down inside. Forty-nine people died because of the rhetoric you put out there.”
“I’m so sorry that you feel that way,” Clinton said. “Certainly, it was never my intention. I do believe words matter. I believe we have to show solidarity.”
Afterward, Asaf posted a short clip of the encounter. It quickly went viral. By Saturday afternoon, Asaf had deleted her Twitter account because of the intense backlash and threats she and Dweik received.
Speaking to The Washington Post, the women shared why they felt compelled to confront Clinton.
Asaf said she felt Clinton’s actions were worthy of criticism, noting that she was one of the first high-profile figures to condemn Omar.
“She was the one who made this a story,” Asaf said, especially by using “as an American,” which Asaf saw as an “anti-immigrant trope.” “To me, when speaking of someone who is a refugee, it’s a dog whistle, it’s signaling this is a patriotic issue and that nationalism excludes people like Ilhan Omar,” she said.
“I wanted to convey my grief,” Dweik added. “It wasn’t this planned attack. I very specifically waited until after the vigil. I wanted this person to know they’ve caused harm. You’ve done things that have hurt this community, and the grief people feel today you’re not separate from.”
But that’s not the message many took from what was shared on social media.
The video spread quickly on the Internet, sparking a heated reaction. Some on the far left have sided with the students and questioned why Clinton would even attend the vigil. But many others, including those who are unlikely to be Clinton allies, felt the students unfairly targeted her.
Donald Trump Jr., for one, came to Clinton’s defense.
Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, who has worked closely with the Clintons for decades, retweeted the post by Trump’s son, accusing him of trying to sow discord among Democrats.
“The right wants to exploit disputes in the Center-Left. I know people are upset by the video but I urge all to move on,” Tanden tweeted. “People were murdered by white nationalist hate,” she wrote. “Spend your time fighting that instead of each other.”
Clinton was invited to the vigil by the Of Many Institute, a multifaith organization at NYU that she helped found, said Clinton’s spokeswoman, Sara Horowitz.
“Chelsea has a history of being outspoken against all forms of hate including anti-Semitism and Islamophobia,” Horowitz said. “She’s spoken about this publicly for years at events and responds to what she sees in real time from her Twitter account.”
Dweik and Asaf, who met through Students for Justice in Palestine, said they did not expect the reaction to the video to be so toxic and critical. Asaf said if she could do anything differently, it would be to frame the encounter to focus more on the grieving Muslim community and not on Clinton.
“I think one of the most important things we can do going forward is to listen to the people being targeted, to respect and center their narratives,” Dweik said. “When all of these people are grieving and when we’re thinking about how this person is feeling … we’re not centering the right voices.”
The killing of 50 Muslim men, women and children and the deeply emotional debate it touched off came just a week after the U.S. House voted on a resolution condemning hate speech, inspired by Omar’s comments. The original version referenced only anti-Semitism but was broadened to include Islamophobia. Twenty-three Republicans opposed it because it didn’t solely focus on anti-Jewish remarks.
The House vote kicked off an emotional debate about terrorism and far-right extremism that echoed back into focus this week. The admitted gunman in New Zealand said in 74-page manifesto that he hoped his attacks would stoke further tension in American politics. He cited President Trump as a “renewed symbol of white identity.”
In the hours after the attack, many Democrats criticized Trump’s rhetoric and policies concerning Muslims and the rise of white nationalism in America after Trump’s election. Republicans, meanwhile, condemned hate and praised religious freedom but largely avoided references to white nationalism. When asked directly about the alleged shooter mentioning Trump by name, they strongly dismissed any suggestion that Trump helped trigger the attack.
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway also defended the president, saying that if people read the entire manifesto, they’ll see the admitted shooter is not a conservative but rather an “eco-terrorist,” a term often used to describe politically motivated attacks on behalf of the environment. When asked by reporters about the global rise of white nationalism, Trump downplayed it, saying it was just “a small group of people.”
Rep. André Carson (D-Ind.), one of three Muslims in Congress, said the president’s remarks were a dog whistle to white supremacists. Trump is “making sure that those folks in his base who probably can’t be aligned with him publicly know that I still appreciate the support, I’m with you, I’m over here,” Carson said in a CNN interview Friday night. “And they’ve heard the message loudly and clearly.”
Earlier in the day, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) tweeted: “Daily reminder that we have a **Muslim Ban** in this country made out of the President’s hostility to Muslim people w/ little-to-no supporting evidence, and a Republican Party that tolerates it.”
Clinton retweeted it.