Two kindergartens in the German city of Leipzig have been receiving death and arson threats after they announced plans to remove pork from their menus out of consideration for Muslim children.
Far-right extremists seized on the proposed menu changes, targeting staff with violent threats and railing against the kindergartens on social media, turning the administrative decision into a national talking point.
The incident, which saw the kindergartens placed under police guard for their safety, is the latest striking illustration of how unhinged the debate around immigration, identity and Islam has become in Germany under the influence of far-right agitators.
“The debate shows how widespread anti-Muslim racism is, and how openly hatred is now being articulated,” Viola Schmidt, spokeswoman for the anti-racism watchdog Amadeu Antonio Foundation, told VICE News. She added that the Leipzig case was especially disturbing as it had involved threats against childcare centers.
Leipzig Mayor Burkhard Jung revealed the extent of the threats in a Facebook post Tuesday, writing that they had included threats — delivered both in writing and in person — to stab those responsible for the changes through the heart, beat up staff until they were unable to work, and burn down the facilities if pork was not restored to the menu.
He said the outpouring of hate had left him “speechless.”
“In 2019, kindergartens are threatened when they change their menu, because it does not fit a small-minded picture of the world,” he wrote.
“The debate shows how widespread anti-Muslim racism is, and how openly hatred is now being articulated”
He singled out the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which had publicly rallied against the proposed menu change as a sign of creeping Islamization of Germany and the impending demise of Western civilization, for fueling the unhinged response.
“The decline of western civilization,” Jung wrote, “is not the result of those who, for whatever reason, have a different food culture than is common at the traditional German table, but because of those who have lost their moral compass.”
Asked for its response to Jung’s remarks Friday, the AfD doubled-down on its attacks.
“It is high time to oppose this madness,” Beatrix von Storch, an AfD MP, told VICE News. “Mettbrötchen (minced pork buns), pork schnitzel and non-halal gummi bears are normal in Germany — everything else is not normal, and will never become the norm.”
Police in Leipzig have made no arrests over the threats so far.
Amadeu Antonio Foundation spokeswoman Schmidt said the situation hadn’t “come of the blue,” but was a product of the far-right’s incessant agitation over immigration, specifically from Muslim countries.
“In 2019, kindergartens are threatened when they change their menu, because it does not fit a small-minded picture of the world”
The AfD, which is particularly strong in eastern states like Saxony, where Leipzig is situated, has grown in power by steadily hammering a narrative that Germany is under threat from Islam, capitalizing on anxieties over Germany’s decision to welcome about a million asylum seekers during the height of Europe’s migrant crisis in 2015. Last year, the party’s anti-Islam messaging included a campaign explicitly calling for “Islam-free schools.”
“It’s a very dangerous narrative as it implies an attack situation, and suggests that those who are attacked must defend themselves,” said Schmidt. “In the end, this narrative legitimizes violence.”
While the AfD bear much of the blame for the latest bit of toxic rhetoric, Schmidt also singled out Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union for contributing to the hysteria over the issue, in a demonstration of how the AfD’s narratives were leaching into the political mainstream. The CDU’s Saxony branch, which had branded the kindergartens’ plans as unacceptable, did not respond to a VICE News request for comment.
Josef Janning, head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, told VICE News that the incident was also a reflection of Saxony’s relative lack of diversity, in contrast to more cosmopolitan parts of the country.
The conservative eastern state is a stronghold for the AfD, which is narrowly trailing the governing CDU in polls ahead of next month’s state elections, and the birthplace of the anti-Islam PEGIDA street movement. Last September, the Saxon city of Chemnitz was the scene of violent far-right protests, while in March last year, eight members of a neo-Nazi terror cell were convicted in the Saxon town of Freital.
“In those parts of the country with a long record of immigration… it is normal to cater for the specific needs of children,” he said. “In Saxony, that is not so firmly established, and in the absence of much diversity, these choices have become politicized by nationalist actors.”
The threats on the kindergartens have come at a time of particular sensitivity over racial issues in Germany. Last month, a 26-year-old Eritrean man narrowly survived an unprovoked, racially-motivated shooting in the town of Wächtersbach; on Monday, an eight-year-old boy was killed in Frankfurt when he was pushed in front of a train by a man of Eritrean origin.
The AfD were swift to seize on the Frankfurt killing as evidence that Germans’ safety was being jeopardized by the country’s welcoming stance towards immigrants, prompting Interior Minister Horst Seehofer to issue a call for restraint. “The sense of security among the public is very strained right now,” he said Wednesday. “We cannot allow either the exploitation, nor the downplaying, of crimes by immigrants.”
Cover: A policeman is standing near a day care center. After discussions about changing the menu in two day-care centers in Leipzig, the police intervened. Photo by: Sebastian Willnow/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images