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Conflict Kitchen’s Palestinian Programming Under Siege

A line of people waiting to order Palestinian takeout from the Conflict Kitchen (all photos courtesy Conflict Kitchen)
A line of people waiting to order Palestinian takeout from the Conflict Kitchen (all photos courtesy Conflict Kitchen)

Conflict Kitchen, the social practice eatery in Pittsburgh, has come under fire from the Israel advocacy organization B’nai B’rith International over its current programming on Palestine. The restaurant’s menu and programming focus on the food and culture of countries where the US is engaged in a conflict, an effort to foster understanding between populations whose governments are at odds — but not everyone is eating up their culinary diplomacy. After a deluge of right-wing media coverage, the organization temporarily closed the restaurant on Friday after receiving a letter containing death threats.

In response to the letter from B’nai B’rith, the Heinz Endowments, which is chaired by Teresa Heinz Kerry (the wife of US Secretary of State John Kerry) and provided a $50,000 grant to Conflict Kitchen last year to help it relocate and develop new programming, appeared to disavow its support for the organization. “I want to be especially clear that its current program on Palestine was not funded by the endowments and we would not fund such a program, precisely because it appears to be terribly at odds with the mission of promoting understanding,” Heinz Endowments president Grant Oliphant wrote in a letter quoted in a B’nai B’rith release from October 31. But a follow-up statement from Oliphant, posted on the Heinz Endowments website, tempered the message: “Just to be clear, the Endowments has a long and proud history of supporting arts organizations whose work can be challenging or controversial, and I stand firmly with our staff in carrying that tradition forward.”

A tasting with members of the local Palestinian community
A tasting with members of the local Palestinian community

“The real story on our Palestinian version is that it is the most popular iteration to date, with 300–400 people a day coming to the restaurant,” Conflict Kitchen co-founders Jon Rubin and Dawn Weleski wrote in a blog post responding to the recent press. “Our public is approaching us with trust, support, and open minds.”

Media coverage of the affair has been sensationalist in tone, with headlines like “Anti-Israel restaurant receives funding from John Kerry’s wife’s foundation” (Fox News), “Report: John Kerry’s Wife Funds Radical Anti-US, Anti-Israel Eatery” (Breitbart), “Kitchen Nightmares” (Washington Free Beacon), and “Kerry’s Wife Funds Anti-Israel Pop Up Restaurant” (Breaking Israel News).

Attacks on Conflict Kitchen have revolved around two issues. Its Palestine-themed programming launched with a September 30 talk that featured West Bank-raised, Pittsburgh-based doctor Nael Aldweib and Ken Boas, a University of Pittsburgh professor who is also the chair of the board of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions-USA. That event drew criticism from Pittsburgh’s Jewish Chronicle for not including an Israeli perspective.

An order being handed over during the Iranian edition of Conflict Kitchen
An order being handed over during the Iranian edition of Conflict Kitchen

“Promoting understanding is at the core of Conflict Kitchen’s mission,” Rubin and Weleski wrote. “We have demonstrated this in the past by presenting the food, culture, and viewpoints of Iranians, Afghans, Cubans, North Koreans, and Venezuelans.  We believe that presenting the viewpoints of Palestinians promotes understanding of Palestinians.”

Subsequent attacks on the organization have centered on the text printed on their food wrappers, which include excerpts from interviews conducted in Palestine. One passage, quoted very selectively in the Washington Free Beacon, reads:

How can you compare Israeli F-16s, which are some of the best military planes in the world, to a few hundred homemade rockets? You’re punishing the Gazans who have been under your siege for eight years already. You’re attacking, arresting and killing guilty and innocent people alike. You have 1.8 million people in an area half the size of New York City, but without proper housing, water or infrastructure, and no way to make a living. They are banned from dealing with anyone outside Gaza. You’ re pushing them to the absolute extreme. So what do you expect? Palestinians are not going to just let you in and drop their arms. No, they’re going to kill and they are going to die.

“Conflict Kitchen’s goal is to increase the curiosity and understanding about the people who live in countries our government is in conflict with by directly exposing our customers to these cultures and viewpoints,” Rubin and Weleski wrote. “Another goal is to raise the public profile of the minority Afghan, Iranian, Cuban, Venezuelan, and Palestinian communities who live and work in our region, thereby creating a more accurate depiction of Pittsburgh’s cultural diversity. These new accusations will not alter Conflict Kitchen’s goals with our current Palestinian version.  Rather, they strengthen why our mission to increase curiosity and understanding is more important than ever before.”

The Conflict Kitchen stand and an adjacent tent set up nearby to host events
The Conflict Kitchen stand and an adjacent tent set up to host events

Conflict Kitchen was launched by Rubin, a Carnegie Mellon University art professor, and Weleski, a multidisciplinary artist, in 2010. Past programs have been devoted to Afghanistan, North Korea, Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela. In spite of the current media hysteria, the restaurant’s customers remain enthusiastic.

“Absolutely love the concept and the food here,” Yelp reviewer Elizabeth H. of Belle Mead, New Jersey, wrote on October 19. “Recently went to try their Palestinian food — the fattoush was excellent. Always have plenty of vegetarian options. People who work here are knowledgeable and love to talk when it’s less crowded. Favorite place to eat in Oakland.”

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