Broward Salutatorian Flooded With Hate Messages After Speech on Middle East

Rachel Cheng delivers her salutatorian speech at the BB&T Center in Sunrise on June 8.
Courtesy of Rachel Cheng
Rachel Cheng delivers her salutatorian speech at the BB&T Center in Sunrise on June 8.
Rachel Cheng, a 17-year-old senior at Western High School in Davie, didn't learn that she had moved up from fifth in her class to second until a few days before her graduation ceremony. She didn't feel compelled to write an ordinary salutatorian speech, and she procrastinated about writing it.

But by the time of the June 8 ceremony, Cheng felt ready. Although initially hesitant, school administrators had signed off on her speech, and she was prepared for her moment in the spotlight.

Cheng, who is of Taiwanese and Chinese descent, says she took the opportunity as the only person of color on the stage to talk about the struggles of Asian-Americans and other minority groups that have faced racism in the U.S.

And with renewed tensions in the Middle East, she says, she would have been remiss not to acknowledge Middle Eastern students in the crowd. So, she addressed them in her speech:
To my Middle Eastern peers who have been facing struggle after struggle and are in constant fear of their families and friends being struck down by a militant government, who've had their land stolen and abused: I applaud you....To anyone else that is part of a marginalized community or has faced discrimination of any kind, whether it be anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, sexism, racism, or any other discrimination, I applaud you for getting here today. And I congratulate all of you for pushing through these struggles and making this the strongest class of students ever.
After her comment about the Middle East, boos and jeers rang through the BB&T Center. But she didn't let them drown her out.

"I didn't want my voice to be silenced," Cheng tells New Times. "So I spoke up louder."

When she finished the speech, she received a round of applause.
But Chang's moment didn't end once she stepped off the stage. Online, pro-Israeli groups got wind of her speech and called it anti-Semitic, seeming to seize on Cheng's comment about stolen land in the Middle East as a reference to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Joe Zevuloni, a Jewish Miami businessman who founded an "Israelis 4 Trump" campaign last November, incorrectly quoted Cheng on his verified Facebook page, where he has close to 70,000 followers, in a string of now-deleted posts. According to screenshots Cheng shared with New Times, Zevuloni wrote that Cheng said she stands with Palestinians living in Israel, an "apartheid state," despite the fact that Cheng never mentioned Israel, Palestine, or apartheid.

Two days after Cheng gave her speech, Zevuloni encouraged his followers to leave comments with Israeli flags on her Instagram account. They did, and they made their sentiments clear on Zevuloni's page as well.

"A rascal Chinese, who should talk about the horror of Corona that her people engineered and spread in the world," one user wrote under Zevuloni's post.

"Sit quietly and eat your white rice one at a time and shut your mouth you dumb piece," another wrote.

Zevuloni did not respond to requests for comment from New Times via phone and email.

On June 14, six days after Cheng gave her speech, the Zionist Organization of America released an action alert to its hundreds of followers on Facebook and on its mailing list, criticizing Cheng for mentioning anti-Semitism only once in her speech and for "demonizing" Israel (as first reported by the Sun Sentinel).

Cheng says she had to turn off the comment section on her Instagram account because it was flooded with racial slurs attacking her Asian-American heritage. And two days after graduation, Instagram took down her account. Despite filing an appeal, Cheng doesn't expect to get it back, though a petition to get her account restored has garnered more than 5,000 signatures.

While the controversy has mostly confined itself to the virtual realm, Cheng says she's been afraid to do anything other than go to work these past few weeks.

On June 15, Broward County Public Schools sent a robocall to families in the district apologizing to "alienated Jewish residents and others in Broward County" and emphasizing its own "neutral stance on all political views and viewpoints expressed by students."

Cheng says Western High principal Jimmy Arrojo called twice to check in on her but she's disappointed by the response from her school and the school district, which did not address the wave of cyberbullying she had faced following her preapproved speech.

She adds that her speech has been misinterpreted and that she was not specifically referring to the Israel-Palestine conflict but more generally to the history of colonization in the Middle East.

"I wasn't referring to Israel or the Palestine conflict," Cheng tells New Times. "I was referring to my Middle Eastern friends who I know have been through a lot of struggles."

Camellia Baki, an 18-year-old senior at Western High, tells New Times she was inspired by Cheng's speech. Baki, who's Lebanese-American, says the acknowledgment of Middle Eastern struggles reminded her of the fight for Lebanese independence.

But many students at Western sent Cheng hateful messages or cut ties with her altogether. Baki wishes there could have been more open discourse between Cheng and those who were hurt by the speech.

"We live in Davie, Florida," Baki says. "Davie, at one point, had a lot of KKK activity. Some of the kids that I've had interactions with at our school are just racist, homophobic. For her to talk about any of that, I feel like, was amazing."

Cheng has opened a new Instagram account that now has more than 6,000 followers. She says her stories on the platform have received upward of 10,000 views apiece.

She'll begin her studies in international architecture at the University of Florida in the fall, hoping to learn more about other cultures and architectural design.

"My speech will follow me everywhere," Cheng says. "But I think being able to use the platform that I was given from this to advocate more for not only Asian-Americans but other minority groups and for human rights in general, is something I would like to do."