A local perspective on the effort to shut down a restaurant that serves up Palestinian food and perspectives. By Ella Mason, Jewish Voice for Peace Pittsburgh
When you think about the sites that play a role in the Israel/Palestine conflict, a few places may come to mind: Oslo, Egypt, Camp David. . . but probably not Pittsburgh. Yet this small post-industrial town has been embroiled in a controversy that has made headlines around the world.
It all begins with the story of the Conflict Kitchen, an innovative art project created by Carnegie Mellon University art professor Jon Rubin. The Conflict Kitchen is a takeout restaurant that only serves food from countries with whom the United States is in some type of conflict. Since its opening in 2010 it has served food from Afghanistan, North Korea, Venezuela, Iran, Cuba, and Colombia. Alongside food, the Kitchen produces written educational works: usually interviews with people from the country in question about their perspectives on food, dating, aging, school, and politics. The Kitchen sees its mission as bringing Americans a deeper understanding of the people and culture(s) of these nations we hear about primarily as headline abstractions.
At the end of September the Conflict Kitchen opened their newest installment of the project; a Palestinian takeout restaurant. Some argued that Palestine was a strange choice for the Kitchen. They ask: Is the U.S. really at conflict with Palestine? The US gives roughly four billion dollars of aid (much of it military) to Israel, the nation actively at war with/occupying Palestine. Furthermore, the U.S.’s continuing blockage in the U.N. of Palestinian statehood helps to maintain what has become the status quo of occupation.
In this context the U.S. could certainly be seen as having a conflict with Palestine, or at the very least, as being fundamentally entangled in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
Pittsburgh has a very small Palestinian population, so as a local Jewish artist with a great deal of interest in the ongoing conflict I was thrilled to hear that the Conflict Kitchen was taking on Palestine and giving these often-silenced voices a platform to be heard in Pittsburgh.
Unfortunately, even before the Palestinian iteration opened, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh (JFGP) made efforts to have the restaurant shut down. Gregg Roman, a former Israeli soldier and current director of Jewish Community Relations for the Federation, attempted to strong arm the University of Pittsburgh’s Honors College (one of the project’s sponsors) into canceling the September 30th kickoff event.
When that didn’t work, he pressured them to add him to a panel on Palestinian culture (how he attempted to justify this, being neither a Palestinian nor an academic nor a cultural worker I do not know). When this tactic also failed, Roman came to the event with an organized group of right-wing Israelis, who used their time to participate by claiming that Palestinians living in Israel face no discrimination there.
This is roughly the same stance that some Americans take when they claim that the U.S. no longer has systemic racism. Even Mizrahi (Arab) Jews face racial discrimination in Israel and the recent controversy there surrounding African refugees clearly demonstrates that racism and discrimination is just as big a problem in Israel as it is any where else. For a more detailed account of what happened at the September 30th event, see this excellent article by a local in attendance.
Despite Roman and the Federation’s attempt to derail the kick-off event, the Palestinian restaurant opened with a flourish and had several weeks of excellent sales and educational events. Slowly the story began to pick up in local and national media. Then on October 7th a food writer for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette wrote an article that essentially served as a mouthpiece for Gregg Roman. The article took verbatim quotes from Roman describing the Conflict Kitchen as being “anti-Israel” and with the implication that this also qualified as anti-Semitism. Despite having interviewed the staff at the Kitchen, the writer failed to include any of their responses, nor did she investigate the truth of Roman’s claims.
Simultaneously, the national Jewish youth organization B’nai Brith wrote a letter to the Heinz Foundation in which it threatened to embarrass Secretary of State John Kerry. If this seems like a strange connection, that’s because it is.
Secretary Kerry, of course, has been making an effort to calm the hostilities in Israel/Palestine since the summer war. Kerry’s wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, sits on the board of the Heinz Foundation. The Heinz Foundation’s arts department gave the Conflict Kitchen a small grant over a year ago when it moved locations.
The grant ran out long before the Kitchen decided to pursue its Palestinian project. Furthermore the creations of artists supported by the Foundation clearly have nothing to do with the political leanings of anyone at the Foundation. But nevertheless, the B’nai Brith Youth Organization was determined to censor and shut down a project that they disagree with. Perhaps because it makes them uncomfortable to hear Palestinian perspectives on the Occupation? I understand. It can be difficult to come to terms with your privilege. But that’s an important part of growing up.
Against the background of this inflated rhetoric, Conflict Kitchen founder Jon Rubin (a Jewish artist) and his staff received a death threat. Not one of the Pittsburgh Jewish institutions mentioned that this anti-Semitic act occurred. In fact, when an individual did point this out on a Jewish community Facebook group, he was promptly expelled from the group.
On Saturday November 8th, the Conflict Kitchen closed while the police investigated the veracity of the death threat. Meanwhile community supporters of all faiths and ethnicities gathered together to show their support. The windows of the restaurant were covered with notes of support. And when Monday came and the restaurant was still closed a crowd of 200 people gathered.
Lining up the same way we would for falafel, people took turns walking up to the window and declaring why they supported this project and particularly its Palestinian version. It was a beautiful show of support for a project that has brought hope and pride to this city and a clear demonstration of art’s ability to bring people together.
On Wednesday November 12, the Kitchen was back open. The Federation has formally condemned the death threats, but in their statement they put the blame on the Conflict Kitchen itself, claiming that the project is “inciting against Israelis and Jews”. Facebook comments critical of the statement were deleted within minutes. Dissent from the party line is not tolerated by the Federation.
Also on Wednesday, Hillel announced through an article in the Jewish Chronicle that they would be funding a pop-up “Co-existence Kitchen” for several days within campus dining halls at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh.
They promise to give a “more-balanced” view of the Middle East focused on “coexistence rather than conflict.” This willful misreading of the purpose of the Conflict Kitchen is so extreme it’s hard to imagine students buying into that narrative. What it demonstrates to me is the desperation these mainstream Zionist institutions feel when confronted with Palestinian narratives and experiences.
None of the Palestinian perspectives given voice through the Conflict Kitchen’s events or materials is simply anti-Israeli or anti-Semitic. But many do share the real oppression they face as a consequence of the Occupation.
The Federation and B’nai Brith claim that this material makes Israel look bad. I am inclined to agree. But the problem isn’t that the material is “anti-Israel.” The problem is that Israel is committing some truly atrocious acts. Ultimately the Federation isn’t struggling against the Conflict Kitchen, they are struggling against reality itself.
~Ella Mason, Jewish Voice for Peace Pittsburgh