The removal of one New Jersey Christopher Columbus statue and similar efforts gaining attention around New Jersey are causing frustration for some Italian-Americans who say the polarizing explorer has become a symbol of great importance for their shared heritage.

New Jersey Italian Heritage Commission Chairman Robert DiBiase said with "justified protests" going on nationwide, the "current flareups" against Columbus undermine the focus and message of movements for social justice.

Last Saturday, protesters destroyed a Columbus statue being removed by Camden from the city's Farnham Park.

A day later, June 14, West Orange Mayor Robert Parisi announced that the township would be removing a Columbus monument from an intersection in town, and replacing it with a "more appropriate" message.

DiBiase said the commission has received calls and emails from various organizations around the state, concerned by online petitions aimed at removing Columbus statues in both Jersey City and Parsippany-Troy Hills and in Clifton, renaming a middle school.

“Regardless of the protesters' intentions, this desecration is demeaning, insulting and disrespectful to all Italian-Americans. Over time, Columbus has become symbolic of the Italian-American experience, heritage, and contributions to these United States,” UNICO National President Frank De Frank said in a written statement to New Jersey 101.5 News.

UNICO National is the country's largest Italian-American service organization, headquartered in Fairfield.

"This has been an ongoing effort to remove Columbus from the history books. I guess after they do the monuments, they will be visiting libraries and burning books," DiBiase said in a statement to New Jersey 101.5 News.

In 2018, the statue now removed from Camden was among at least seven of Christopher Columbus that were targets of vandalism around New Jersey, prompting an investigation by the state Office of Homeland Security.

An online petition to remove a Columbus statue in Parsippany-Troy Hills was started Monday by resident Emily Cruz, who said in the description "Due to BLM and other minority movements making way across the country, I felt that now was as good of a time as any to make a petition to remove the Columbus statue in Parsippany. We should not, in any way, celebrate or recognize his slaughter and enslavement of indigenous people. This is not someone that our town should be honoring with a statue."

A counter petition was created Tuesday by resident Robert Quinn, voicing support to keep the statue.

"Ignorance is starting to prevail here, and education is the only thing we can rely on in the future," DiBiase said.

New Jersey created the Italian Heritage Commission in 2002. At the time, both HBO's "The Sopranos" and MTV's "Jersey Shore" were hits, but criticized for perpetuating stereotypes of Italian-Americans, in particular in New Jersey.

DiBiase said he "just represents a small part of New Jersey," but there are 17 million Americans of Italian descent, for whom the Columbus imagery is meaningful beyond the man himself.

He said for example, the monument in Manhattan's Columbus Circle was put there by immigrants as a symbol of Italian-American contributions.

The online petition by Jae Yi regarding Jersey City's Journal Square statue cited historian Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States" in accusing Columbus of enslaving 1,500 Native Americans to be shipped to Spain, and mass genocide against Native Americans.

“Much of the circulating information concerning Columbus is historically inaccurate as it neglects the many positive aspects of Columbus' explorations and has placed this information totally out of temporal context," De Frank said in his same written statement.

De Frank continued, "His accomplishments as a daring navigator can go uncontested; he is emblematic of the millions of immigrants and their pursuit of economic opportunity, religious freedom, and hope for a better life.”

State Senator Joe Pennacchio of Morris County also tweeted support for preserving the statue in Parsippany, writing "Alongside all Americans, Italian Americans built, fought and died for this country. To have a statue of Columbus displayed in our community is symbolic of how proud we are of those contributions."

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