Activists who confronted Chelsea Clinton at vigil give their story

Full disclosure, I was an undergraduate student at NYU, where I very occasionally wrote for the student newspaper. In so many ways, this particular kerfuffle is happening in my backyard.

On Friday, a vigil for the Christchurch victims was held at New York University.

Rose Asaf is a senior at NYU. She is an Israeli-American Jewish woman, and she co-founded the Jewish Voice for Peace chapter at NYU.

Rose’s best friend is Leen Dweik, also a senior at NYU. She is a Muslim Palestinian woman whose main organizing centers on Palestine solidarity efforts.

When Chelsea Clinton arrived, Rose tweeted the video below, which shows Leen confronting Chelsea Clinton for her remarks about Ilhan Omar earlier this month. Leen said Clinton’s remarks had stoked Islamophobia. She went on to say the vigil was being held for “a massacre stoked by people like you and the words that you… put out into the world”.

My best friend @vivafalastin told @ChelseaClintonthat itâÂ?Â?s a disgrace that she came to the vigil, calling out ChelseaâÂ?Â?s Islamophobia and hypocrisy.

— Esor (@itme_esor) March 15, 2019

That video went viral and quickly led to intemperate responses from other celebrities rushing to Chelsea Clinton’s defense. 

Donald Trump Jr. jumped in, coming to Chelsea Clinton’s virtual aid. Several people then pointed out Cheslea Clinton’s long friendship with Ivanka Trump. Neera Tanden offered a competing explanation, suggesting Jr. might be trying to stoke division among Democrats (as if!). 

Mayor Bill DeBlasio came to Chelsea Clinton’s defense as well

Other celebrities and people with platforms decided to take it further. Kathy Griffin called Leen a “fucking pussy”. Robert Palmer, a political analyst called Leen a “fanatic”

A Hill journalist mocked Rose for her pro-Palestinian, pro-gay activism and later deleted that tweet after people highlighted its implicit racism and Islamophobia. 

The same journalist did leave up a tweet about other aspects of Rose’s pro-Palestinian activism. That bothered the acclaimed Jewish illustrator and comic book creator Eli Valley enough that he felt he had to jump in to defend the two young activists.

The executive editor of the Washington Examiner claimed Leen was advocating genocide. Within the space of a few hours, it felt as if most of “blue check twitter” seemed intent on putting the two young activists in their place.

And there was the usual Twitter mob who decided to dig up tweets from when they were 15 years old. To which Leen had this to say:

Finally, to add yet more flavor to the pot, a whole host of people noted that Leen was wearing a Bernie 2020 t-shirt. 

Let us all take a big step back.

Of course, the New Zealand incident was bound to touch the Israel-Palestine fault-line in American politics, if only for this: 

Then there is the fact that Leen Dweik is Palestinian, her best friend Rose Asaf is Israeli-American and they both advocate for Palestinian rights. Back in December, NYU’s student government voted for a resolution asking NYU to divest from Israeli companies. That effort was led, in part, by Rose Asaf and Leen Dweik as reported by the NYU student newspaper:

The students came to see the result of the “Resolution on the Human Rights of Palestinians,” presented by Senators at-Large Rose Asaf and Bayan Abubakr and Alternate Senator at-Large Leen Dweik. […]

“This resolution is for the human rights of all.” Dweik said. “We want to know that our tuition money is not being spent to kill brown people across the world.” […]

Political Action Chair for the Black Student Union Dylan Brown spoke second for the resolution. Brown mentioned that the struggles of black people in the United States cannot be separated from those of the Palestinian people.

“This body has a duty to all marginalized students on this campus to not be invested in systems of oppression,” Brown said. —…

Given the nature of their political activism, it’s safe to assume that both young women are earnest in their concern for Rep. Omar. Campus activists for Palestinian causes often face charges of anti-semitism. Major pro-Israel organizations have funded an effort to create a blacklist of pro-Palestinian college activists:

For three years, a website called Canary Mission has spread fear among undergraduate activists, posting more than a thousand political dossiers on student supporters of Palestinian rights. The dossiers are meant to harm students’ job prospects, and have been used in interrogations by Israeli security officials. —…

So they can be forgiven to seeing the bad-faith attacks on Rep. Omar as a higher profile example of the kind of things they have likely faced.

A number of people on the left believe Rep. Ilhan Omar was unfairly attacked by those with large platforms who have a pro-Israel view. Many also believe these attacks put Rep. Omar at great risk of physical harm, and that legitimizing such bad-faith attacks leads to a vicious cycle, which can trigger violence. This is the context within which we have to understand the video and Leen’s remarks. 

Leen and Rose were interview by the Washington Post and had this to say about that dynamic:

“She [Chelsea Clinton] 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.” […]

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 Chelsea Clinton tweet Rose referred to was this:

Leen and Rose have also written an article at Buzzfeed, providing their perspective on the encounter they had with Chelsea Clinton, it is worth a read.

We did a double take when we first noticed Chelsea Clinton was at the vigil. Just weeks before this tragedy, we bore witness to a bigoted, anti-Muslim mob coming after Rep. Ilhan Omar for speaking the truth about the massive influence of the Israel lobby in this country. As people in unwavering solidarity with Palestinians in their struggle for freedom and human rights, we were profoundly disappointed when Chelsea Clinton used her platform to fan those flames. We believe that Ilhan Omar did nothing wrong except challenge the status quo, but the way many people chose to criticize Omar made her vulnerable to anti-Muslim hatred and death threats. […]

The reality is that many people aren’t doing enough to fight anti-Muslim bigotry. We need people to understand that you cannot be racist against Palestinians, and vilify people who promote their cause, while also being in solidarity with Muslims. You cannot contribute to the anti-Muslim, anti-Black, and misogynistic abuse of Rep. Omar while also being in solidarity with Muslims.

To Chelsea Clinton: We hope that our intentions in confronting you are now clear. We believe that you still owe an apology: not only to Rep. Omar, but also to Palestinians for using your platform to defame their cause. As an Israeli national and a Palestinian, we want you to know that it is dangerous to label valid criticisms of Israel and its lobby as anti-semitic. We know that this is a tactic to silence us and deny us our free speech.


— @subirgrewal