Interviews

Founders Defend Project as Conflict Kitchen Set to Reopen after Death Threats

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Community members post messages of support on the closed facade of Conflict Kitchen, which came under fire from right-wing groups over its presentation of Palestinian cuisine and voices (image courtesy Conflict Kitchen)

After closing last Friday over a letter containing death threats received by police, Pittsburgh eatery and social practice project Conflict Kitchen is to reopen on Wednesday, November 12. According to an announcement posted on the restaurant’s website, the decision to reopen came after “consultation with local law enforcement agencies,” though the investigation into the received “is ongoing.” As Hyperallergic previously reported, Conflict Kitchen has faced a furor stoked by right-wing media (e.g. Fox News and Breitbart) over the supposed anti-Semitism of its current Palestinian iteration, which led to a denunciation from Israel advocacy organization B’nai B’rith and a distancing statement from erstwhile funder The Heinz Endowments. A sit-in organized by community members in support of the organization has taken place daily outside its Schenley Plaza location since the closure began, with messages of solidarity posted to the restaurant’s facade.

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Community members gather at Conflict Kitchen after its temporary closure over death threat (image courtesy Shawn Fertitta)

In an email interview with Hyperallergic’s Ben Sutton, Conflict Kitchen’s Dawn Weleski and Jon Rubin repudiated the charges, noting that none of their previous iterations — which served the cuisines and perspectives of people from Afghanistan, Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, and North Korean — led to accusations of bias. (The pair, an artist and Carnegie Mellon University professor, respectively, founded Conflict Kitchen in 2010.) Indeed, the premise of their project, they argue, is to offer unadulterated the perspectives of silenced and marginalized peoples caught in the crosshairs of conflict. And the Palestinian version of Conflict Kitchen has apparently been their most successful to date, with some 300 daily visitors prior to the closure.

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Hyperallergic: Did you have any communication with Heinz Endowment prior to the B’nai B’rith press release announcing their disavowal of support?

Conflict Kitchen: We had no communication at all with The Heinz Endowments prior to the B’nai B’rith press release. They did not bother to contact us to vet any of the specious or inflammatory claims being made against us prior to the eventual disavowment of their support.

HA: What has the local community’s response been to the current, Palestinian version of Conflict Kitchen?

CK: Our Palestinian version is Conflict Kitchen’s most popular iteration to date, with over 300 customers visiting the restaurant daily. Our public is approaching us at the take-out window with trust, support, and open minds. Most all of the community’s written responses and posts concerning the project have been positive. Our charge now is to redirect the conversation in Pittsburgh back to highlighting the voices of Palestinians in our community and in Palestine.

HA: The media coverage from the past two weeks has sought to sensationalize the work you do; is this something you had anticipated or experience before with previous iterations of the project? Does the backlash vindicate or cast doubt on your project, which is to introduce otherwise excluded voices/identities into the American public sphere?

CK: In the past four years, our media coverage has consistently conveyed the purpose of the project and engaged in critical but constructive reflection. Unfortunately, we have witnessed an abrupt shift in tone since opening our Palestinian iteration. Nearly all of the media coverage over the last three weeks has consistently refused to present our actual history and current activities and, more importantly, neglected to interview and present the voices of any Palestinians.

HA: One criticism leveled against Conflict Kitchen’s programming has been the absence of any pro-Israel speakers; this seems to run counter to the spirit of the whole project, but is it something you’ve considered doing?

CK: The persistent call for a pro-Israel voice to be added to our materials and programming not only ignores the premise of our project, it fails to recognize our fundamental freedom of artistic production and expression. 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. 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. There has never been a public call in our four years of existence for a counter-voice to be offered during our Afghan, Cuban, Venezuelan, Iranian, or North Korean versions. These new accusations will not alter Conflict Kitchen’s goals with our current Palestinian version. Rather, they strengthen our mission, as it’s been proved through recent events that it’s more important to do so than ever before.

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