May 24, 2024 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 603

On Memorial Day, A Look At Pro-Palestinian Protestors' Desecration Of U.S. War Memorials And Monuments Since October 7

May 24, 2024 | By Steven Stalinsky, Ph.D.*
MEMRI Daily Brief No. 603

This Monday, May 27, Americans will observe Memorial Day by visiting cemeteries and memorials to remember those who fell in service to the country. America's fallen heroes are honored with flags placed by the 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment at every single service member's grave at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, at other national cemeteries, and at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Communities nationwide will hold parades and other events to commemorate those who made the ultimate sacrifice for the country. Memorial Day – the last Monday in May - originated in the years following the Civil War, which claimed more American lives than any conflict in U.S. history. The death toll was so great that burying the dead required the establishment of the country's first national cemeteries.

At some American national monuments, memorials, and historic sites and statues, anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian protests across the country have featured anti-American chants, flag burnings, vandalism, desecration of national monuments and statues of past presidents, founding fathers, and military leaders. Another recurring theme is tearing down American flags and replacing them with Palestinian flags – marking territory as occupied by the protestors.

Service members have said online that the type of protests and U.S. flag burnings which have been seen since October 7 are protected by the First Amendment – even when they strongly disagree with these actions.

Social media has been a vehicle for capturing and circulating these activity, which the protestors, their supporters, and their defenders do not want seen by the public.

The combination of organizations, groups, and funds involved in the incitement that led to this targeting of memorials and monument includes overt support and messages directly from designated terror organizations – Hamas, Hizbullah, the Houthis, Iran, and even Al-Qaeda. The other factor is the support of extremist organizations, such as Samidoun, and grooming of students and other organizations by Islamist organizations and their sheikhs, ranging from the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Muslim American Society (MAS), and student groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). Contributing to this are the universities and foundations that allow these groups to operate on their grounds and as part of their institutions. Online support is often amplified by bots and other artificially generated activity from Iran, Russia, and China.

The U.S. Supreme Court held that burning the American flag in protest remains "symbolic speech that is protected by the First Amendment." But defacement and desecration of U.S. war memorials and monuments, and damaging historic government buildings – which happens in pro-Palestinian protests described as "peaceful" by their supporters – are not.

This activity by protestors with no sense of patriotism or deep attachment to America is more than mere disrespect, as reflected in their chants of "Death to America" or calls for an Intifada to be brought here.  What is most concerning is the visible support for America's enemies, from Iran to Hamas to Hizbullah to the Houthis and others.

Disrespect of War Memorials

One desecration occurred at the Los Angeles National Cemetery, the resting place of 90,000 veterans of World War I, World II, and the Vietnam War. The cemetery walls were vandalized and defaced, with "Free Gaza" spray painted on the entrance, in January.

The World War I 107th Infantry Memorial in New York's Central Park, honoring a regiment that saw action in conflicts from the Civil War through World War II, was vandalized by protestors on May 6, during a "Day of Rage" that coincided with Holocaust Remembrance Day. The protesters draped the memorial in Palestinian flags, sprayed graffiti reading "Gaza" and "Free Palestine," plastered it with anti-Israel stickers, and burned an American flag on the plaza. The statue was also tagged with a red triangle, a symbol used by Hamas to indicate a target.

At the southeast corner of Central Park, protestors vandalized the equestrian statue of Civil War Major General William Tecumseh Sherman with similar graffiti, along with "F**K EMPIRE" and "NYPD equals KKK."

On May 7, New York City Mayor Eric Adams stood at the defaced World War I memorial and announced a reward of up to $15,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the perpetrators of the vandalism. He said: "The reason we are here is because of men and women like this statue behind us. We cannot remain silent when our symbols of freedom are desecrated by individuals who clearly hate our country and hate our way of life. I am not going to remain silent. We should not remain silent, because our silence gives the belief that everything is okay and it is not okay... The right to free speech, the right to protest the right, is something that we will always fight to keep in place... This memorial is reflective of the common man, the common woman, everyday soldiers who died and sacrificed their lives on the field of battle." He added that he was dedicating the reward – part of which was coming from his own pocket – "in the name of my uncle, 19-year-old Uncle Joe," who was killed fighting in Vietnam. 

This desecration of war memorials by pro-Palestinian groups is not limited to the U.S. – it is happening around the world. In November, in London, UK, following a demonstration outside the Parliament, protestors climbed on the Royal Artillery Memorial in Hyde Park; Prime Minister Rishi Sunak called their actions "an affront" and "appalling." Australia's National Vietnam War memorial in Canberra's Anzac Park, which pays tribute to Australians who served in Vietnam, was defaced with graffiti stating "Eyes on Gaza," "Eyes on Rafah," and "The Colony Will Fall."

The iconic Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. was so badly covered in red paint splashed on it by pro-Palestinian protests, and with graffiti sprayed on it reading "Free Palestine" and "Free Gaza," that it had to be closed to the public while cleanup operations took place.

Statues Defaced

In May, the George Washington statue on the George Washington University campus in Washington, D.C. was draped in a keffiyeh and Palestinian flags, covered in stickers, and sprayed with graffiti, reading "Genocidal warmonger."

Statues of President Andrew Jackson and Benjamin Franklin in the nation's capital were also defaced with "Free Palestine" graffiti, Palestinian flags, and kaffiyehs, as were other venerated American landmarks and historical sites.

Additionally, the Benjamin Franklin statue on the University of Pennsylvania campus in Philadelphia was draped with a keffiyeh and the red triangle symbol that Hamas uses to indicate upcoming targets for killing. The next day, it was targeted again, with graffiti stating: "Glory to the martyrs" and "Intifada until victory."

In Lafayette Park, across from the White House, protestors defaced statues of Gen. Marquis de Lafayette, Gen. John J. Pershing, and Comte de Rochambeau, the French nobleman and general whose army played a critical role in helping the U.S. defeat the British Army at Yorktown in 1781.

Vandalism at the White House

At the White House, protestors have massed, screaming "Takbir, Allahu Akbar!" and the shahada, shouting for intifada - a violent uprising. On November 4, some protestors attempted to scale and pull down the gates, vandalizing them with red paint and throwing objects at Secret Service members keeping them back. Some protesters were even carrying the Hizbullah flag.

While veterans and concerned citizens have noted that the protests taking place across the country are protected as free speech under the First Amendment of the Constitution, a group of U.S. military veterans recently shared their disgust over the wave of anti-Israel protests with a TV reporter. "They're a disgrace to the United States of America. Burning flags, talking against the country. They're not happy here? Deport them like anybody else if they're not an American. It's a shame and a disgrace," a World War II veteran was quoted as saying. He explained, "These veterans died and got injured and everything else, so they could protest against the United States of America and burn flags and everything else. Total disgrace."

But patriotic pushback is growing. At Rutgers University, students drowned out the protestors' pro-Palestinian anti-Israel chants with a powerful rendition of the national anthem and chants of "USA!" When protestors at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill tore down the American flag and replaced it with a Palestinian flag, fraternity brothers intervened to keep the American flag from touching the ground – with the video of their efforts going viral and a GoFundMe fundraiser for them garnering over half a million dollars. And there are other examples happening.

This Memorial Day, as we remember and honor the brave soldiers who served and who made the ultimate sacrifice, one can only hope that if these protests continue, including burning and tearing down flags and defacing memorials and monuments, they will be met with an increasingly patriotic response on the part of everyday Americans who view these protests as an irritant and an annoyance.

* Steven Stalinsky is Executive Director of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI).


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