The recent decision of Essener Tafel, a food bank in the city of Essen, Germany, temporarily to stop issuing membership cards to non-Germans has triggered an outcry among German politicians, journalists and activists, who have accused the charitable organization of "racism". Serving about 16,000 poor people in the industrial city of Essen, Essener Tafel is one of the biggest charities in Germany, operated by volunteers only.
Essener Tafel's announcement read:
"Due to the increase in the number of refugees, the share of foreign fellow citizens among our customers has increased to 75 percent. To guarantee a reasonable integration, we see ourselves forced currently to accept only customers with a German passport."
A board member of Essener Tafel told the weekly Die Zeit that the five-member board had discussed and changed the wording of these two sentences "for hours... until no one had an objection". Neither had there been any criticism from the migrants who had to be sent away or among other charities with which the Essener Tafel cooperates, he said.
Clients of the Essener Tafel food bank line up to receive food in Essen, Germany. (Image source: ARD video screenshot)
It was clear that the measure would not affect existing clients and was supposed to remain in place only as long as it took to restore the balance between Germans and migrants -- supposedly only a few weeks. This goal was reached in mid-April: As the share of German customers had climbed from 25 to 56 percent, Essener Tafel announced a new policy: From now on, in it will give priority to senior citizens, disabled people, families with minors, and single parents, without regard to nationality. Still, scores of politicians and journalists expressed their moral outrage on Twitter.
Karl Lauterbach, an MP for the Social-Democratic Party (SPD) and the party's healthcare expert, tweeted: "Hunger is the same for everybody. Too bad, xenophobia has arrived among the most poor."
Berlin's Secretary for Integration, Sawsan Chebli (SPD) tweeted: "I'm shivering. Food only for Germans. Migrants excluded."
Chancellor Angela Merkel -- who needed a whole year to express her condolences to the relatives of the victims of Berlin's jihadist massacre in December 2016 -- immediately gave a television interview in which she berated the decision as "not good". One "should not use such categorizations", she advised; instead, "one should look for good solutions".
Dunja Hayali, a television presenter with Germany's public broadcaster ZDF, tweeted: "It's not very smart to organize hunger games at the bottom of society and pit Germans against foreigners." (The Hunger Games is an American science fiction trilogy of novels -- and films based on the novels -- that feature a televised event in which participants are forced to fight to the death in a dangerous arena.")
As the the philosopher and theologian Richard Schröder pointed out in a commentary in the daily Die Welt, food banks are "no soup kitchens... their goal is not to fight hunger". The food banks were created to avoid the moral calamity of throwing perfectly edible food, which for any reason cannot be sold, to the garbage. At the same time, they enable poorer -- but certainly, in the case of Germany, not "hungry" -- people to spend money they would otherwise spend on food on other goods. Or, in the case of asylum seekers, to send more money to their home countries. Recently, Die Welt reported about a Syrian refugee who sends as much as 300 euros ($400) a month of his welfare benefits to his family in Syria.
Jörg Sartor, chairman of the Essener Tafel and the focus of the fury, explained that the measure was necessary to restore a "balance" between Germans and foreigners, one that was more representative of the population at large. Since 2015, when Chancellor Angela Merkel opened Germany's borders to more than a million migrants from Africa, Asia and the Middle East, the migrants' quota among Essener Tafel clients has increased from 35% to 75%. That means, of course, that there is less food for German families. It was not this shortage, however, that compelled the organization to change its policy. According to Sartor, he and the other volunteers had observed that a "large number" of local elderly women and single mothers had stopped coming in for food:
"The German grandma is crowded out because she feels uncomfortable among the foreign men in the queue who all speak Arabic... Would your mother, when she leaves the streetcar on a Wednesday and sees 50 Arabs, join the queue?"
If there was only one troublemaker, Sartor said, he could sort him out. "But they're a pack." The journalist commented: "Sartor doesn't care about diplomatic language."
A female client of the Essener Tafel told a journalist that many Arab men just walked past the queue and "pretend that they don't understand German". Another woman said that she had stopped coming for a while because she had been tired of the "pushing and shoving". Her daughter added: "This is really bad. The men who cut the line don't even react when they are spoken to."
Norbert Reinartz, a volunteer with the Essener Tafel, said:
"What has been written, is not made up out of thin air. I see it every day: 'Woman, step aside!' The elderly, who are often severely handicapped, stand no chance to compete."
Another volunteer said that he didn't "feel in the mood" to resort to "physical force to restore law and order".
Some migrants seemed to share a "give-me gene" and could not understand Germany's "queuing culture", Sartor said. He thinks that they could "learn to adopt this mentality" if there was a "German majority setting an example". Even at school or in kindergartens, he said, integration only worked in mixed groups. "If 90 percent of the group don't speak German, there is no integration."
Although the recent media coverage revealed that problems at the food banks are widespread, there were, until now, few reports. An exception was the food bank in Bochum-Wattenscheid, where problems spiraled so out of control in February 2015 that 300 out of 430 volunteers quit. The local newspaper, back then, quoted the director of Wattenscheider Tafel, Manfred Baasner, as saying:
"Our volunteers get insulted and sworn at. We are insulted because some bananas have brown spots. There's scrambling and shoving, the elderly and children are pushed aside. There's an aggressiveness and sense of entitlement that drives me crazy."
Baasner said that he was "afraid to say" that it was "almost entirely people from Southeastern Europe and exceedingly also refugees" who behaved that way. A volunteer described the situation: "I gave three apples to a young immigrant. When I told him that other people wanted apples, too, he brutally hit me in the face."
While politicians of the ruling CDU and SPD parties unequivocally condemn Sartor's decision, polls show that more than 60% of the German population support it, while only 27% percent think it was wrong.
Sartor says that he had always voted for the center-left SPD party: "My father was the SPD spokesman in Gelsenkirchen, my whole family is SPD." But now the SPD was pushing him "in a completely different direction", he said, adding that the anti-immigration party Alternative for Germany (AfD) was "no alternative" for him and that he had sent away a party representative who had asked to meet him.
The HuffPost German edition stressed that "the case of Jörg Sartor is symptomatic for the failure of the SPD... It shows how the party alienates its core voters."
A column in the Frankfurter Allgemeine daily pointed out that the food banks' problems with migrants "don't fit into the fairy tale ideal of all those who are never faced with such problems". Indeed, Sartor has an entirely different social and cultural background than almost everybody who criticized him. Most high-ranking German politicians have never held a job outside the political sphere. The SPD healthcare expert Karl Lauterbach, for instance, attended top-notch centers of learning such as Harvard Medical School -- but has never practiced as a doctor. Andrea Nahles, the new SPD chairwoman, started her political career at the age of 18 and never held any job at all, until, in 2013, Chancellor Merkel appointed her Minister of Labor. Sartor, on the other hand, worked for more than 30 years as a coal miner, 1,100 meters below the surface of the Earth. When he retired at the age of 49, he wanted to do something "that made sense". He joined the food bank 13 years ago because he wanted to "carry boxes" and "be among people". After just one year, he was elected chairman. "I'm not a do-gooder, I'm no Mother Teresa, and I'm certainly no refugee aid worker", he said.
Even though Sartor's opponents are a minority, they make headlines. Countless media outlets reported that the ADD, a minor German political party with ties to the AKP Party of Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had filed a criminal complaint against Essener Tafel, arguing that it was guilty of "tax evasion" because it could "no longer be regarded as a charity". This step had been "necessary", party spokesman Recep Dadas said, "because we are disappointed by the lack of moral courage shown by Essen's citizens".
HuffPo reported that the grocery chains which donate food to Essener Tafel now had to "justify" themselves for doing so. On the Facebook page of the EDEKA grocery chain, a user wrote:
"For more than a week, there has been exclusion and racism at Essener Tafel. When do you finally comment on this issue? How do you want to explain to employees with a migrant background that you still cooperate with such an organization?"
At the end of February, activists with "Refugees Welcome" banners held a protest rally in front of Essener Tafel's headquarters. Andreas Brinck, one of the protesters, said:
"We're here to criticize a racist and discriminatory measure. This is against the Constitution. We are especially upset because the mayor and the head of the social welfare department tolerate it."
During one of the the previous nights, vandals had sprayed "Nazis" and "FCK NZI" on the food bank's entrance and on six of the seven trucks that carry the food for the needy. Asked for a comment, Sartor said: "If they don't like me, fine, but it's an infamy to defame the volunteers." He announced that he would not remove the graffiti. "Everyone shall see this," he said.
In the meantime, more and more German cities have declared themselves unable to host more migrants. In October 2017, Salzgitter in Lower-Saxony was the first city to impose immigration restrictions: It will not accept any additional refugees. Wilhelmshaven and Delmenhorst, Cottbus, Eschweiler and Pirmasens followed suit. Faced with unchecked mass immigration, it seems, more and more people and institutions in Germany feel compelled to draw their own borders.
Stefan Frank is a journalist and author based in Germany.