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Conflict Kitchen controversy displays fear of facing Palestinian reality

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.photo 2

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.photo 1

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