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The Department of Veterans Affairs Must Remove Hate Symbols from National Cemeteries

SPLC joins the Military Religious Freedom Foundation and other civil liberties groups in calling for the removal of headstones bearing swastikas on the graves of Nazi soldiers buried in national veterans cemeteries in Texas and Utah. 

Surely the Veterans administration does not support Nazis. Have they forgotten the nearly half-million of American soldiers who sacrificed their lives to defeat them in World War II? Have they forgotten the millions of Jews who died in the Holocaust?

Do they have no awareness of the continuing potency of the swastika, the symbol irrevocably connected to these atrocities?

The VA’s refusal to replace these headstones comes at a time when documented antisemitic incidents in the United States have reached a new high: over 2,000 incidents in 2019, a 12 per cent increase over the prior year, according to ADL’s Center on Extremism’s annual tabulation.

At the same time, SPLC’s Intelligence Project has documented a 55 percent increase in the number of white nationalist groups since 2017, when Trump’s campaign energized the movement.

Make no mistake – the concurrent rise of antisemitism and of white nationalism in the U.S. is no coincidence. Not every white nationalist is anti-Semitic and not every anti-Semite is a white nationalist. But white nationalism as a political movement seeking a white-only ethno-state is fueled by and dependent on antisemitism. The VA’s defense of the swastika – the preeminent symbol of antisemitism – only gives oxygen to the white nationalist movement.

The current Veterans Administration isn’t responsible for the mistakes of past cemetery managers. The graves are a relic of the prisoners of war transferred to the US at the end of World War II who died here, the majority of whom were repatriated. But refusal to act, now that those mistakes have come to light is far from a neutral act. A Military Times survey following the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville in 2017 found that one in four members of the armed services, and 40 per cent of troops of color surveyed, have seen examples of white nationalism among their fellow service members. The study found that troops rate white nationalism in their ranks “as a larger national security threat than Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan”.

The Veterans Administration has a responsibility to veterans and active duty troops to disavow symbols of hate. I can only imagine the heartbreak of the retired senior officer who stumbled across the swastikas on grave markers at the Fort Sam Houston national cemetery when he was visiting the grave of his Jewish grandfather who fought against the Nazis in World War II. “This is the hallowed ground of people who gave their life for this country,” he told Salon. “To be buried next to people they fought displaying that symbol of hate is disgusting.”

He rightly pointed out that this is more than a matter of principle. “There are Nazis here today, and they could gather around these symbols. You know, ‘Here are the martyrs that died for our cause.’” Sadly, this third-generation United States military veteran asked the media to withhold his name due to fear of reprisal from the hate groups that still use the swastika today.

Eric K. Ward is a Senior Fellow with SPLC and Executive Director of Western States Center. His last blog post for SPLC was the widely-read response to the pandemic, “Who Are We, America?

Photo by Michael Field/Wikimedia Commons