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