The conflict between Israel and Palestine has been writ small, six thousand miles away.
Pittsburgh may be known for its steel mill past and its high-tech present, but is now emerging as the seat of a lively debate concerning Palestinian food, free speech, and criticism of Israeli policies.
The Conflict Kitchen is a take-out eatery that only serves food from countries with which the United States is in conflict. The restaurant began serving Palestinian food on October 6. On November 8, restaurant co-director Jon Rubin received a letter containing a death threat. As a result, Mr. Rubin temporarily closed the Conflict Kitchen.
Since its inception in 2010, the restaurant has featured the cuisine of Iran, Afghanistan, North Korea, and Venezuela. The Conflict Kitchen is both a restaurant and publicly engaged art practice, the project of Jon Rubin, associate professor of art at Carnegie Mellon University and artist Dawn Weleski. Situated on a lively park-like space between the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University, museums, and libraries, the Conflict Kitchen is a popular destination for students, faculty, staff, and families during the lunch hour.
According to the Conflict Kitchen’s web site, the purpose of the restaurant is: “to expand the engagement the public has with the culture, politics, and issues at stake within the focus region.” An educational outreach coordinator from the restaurant connects with members of the focus country’s local diaspora community, sponsors speakers and discussions during the lunch hour, and engages passersby in playful activities that invite them to think about the relationships between conflict and culture in unique ways.
When the Conflict Kitchen first started serving Palestinian food, many were dubious that the United States was even in conflict with Palestine in the first place. Omar Abdelkarim, originally from Egypt and a senior majoring in industrial engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, remarked: “A lot of my friends don’t even know there’s a conflict there [in Palestine]. It [the Conflict Kitchen] raises awareness. People start wondering what’s going on,” he said in an interview.
Local Conflict and a Crackdown on Free Speech
Before the Conflict Kitchen even started serving Palestinian food, it sponsored a lunchtime discussion, which, the media reported, was lacking in balance.
On September 30, 2014, The Jewish Chronicle of Pittsburgh reported that the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh found the lunchtime discussion’s focus on a pro-Palestinian narrative one-sided because it did not represent a pro-Israel perspective.
Gregg Roman, director of the Jewish Federation’s Community Relations Council, told The Jewish Chronicle of Pittsburgh: “Palestine is not in conflict with the US. The restaurant is stirring up conflict for the sake of trying to be relevant.” Mr. Roman demanded that Conflict Kitchen host a follow-up event that would present pro-Israeli points of view. Even before the lunch discussion happened, Mr. Roman took the case to the Dean of the University of Pittsburgh’s Honors College.
It’s in the face of such complaints that the University of Pittsburgh’s Honors College withdrew its name from the Conflict Kitchen’s lunch events. Honors College Dean Edward Stricker explained that the decision to withdraw sponsorship is “not put[ting] pressure on the organizer of the event to change the format,” but that “I had wanted there to be a second event in which the Israeli perspective could be presented in order to provide some balance,” he explained in an email interview.
The food wrappers, which feature excerpts of interviews with Palestinian people on a range of topics such as dating, the Palestinian Authority, food, and olive trees, have been attacked for expressing allegedly anti-Israeli attitudes. On November 6, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that B’nai B’rith International called upon the Heinz Endowments, a Pittsburgh-based philanthropic organization chaired by Teresa Heinz Kerry, wife of Secretary of State John Kerry, to disavow its $50,000 grant to the Conflict Kitchen.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette interviewed Mr. Rubin for their November 6 story, but neither featured his perspective nor that of any Palestinian in their reportage. The story focused on B’nai B’rith’s critique, without any rebuttal. As a result, the Conflict Kitchen issued a public statement of its food wrappers: “Perhaps it is hard for some people to hear that Palestinians are not happy with Israeli policies or the actions of some of its citizens, but to cast their viewpoints as simply anti-Israeli is to reinforce the simplest, most polarizing, and dehumanizing reading of their lives and perpetuate the silencing of their voices.”
The Conflict Kitchen is now closed, but the restaurant is virtually covered in supportive notes written by members of the community. Nathan Urban, Interim Provost at Carnegie Mellon University, Mr. Rubin’s place of employment, issued a statement on November 10 that endorses the Conflict Kitchen’s right to free speech. In an email addressed to faculty, staff, and students, Mr. Urban writes: “Carnegie Mellon University supports all forms of freedom of expression, consistent with the laws of the Commonwealth and nation. The university respects the rights of those involved, as well as the rights of others to express their disagreement. Controversial expression and resulting debate are fundamental elements of democratic society and are at the core of our academic mission.”
Hadeel Salameh, a senior majoring in Creative Writing at the University of Pittsburgh, and the president of the University of Pittsburgh’s Students for Justice in Palestine chapter, saw the Honor’s College cancellation of sponsorship and the negative media spin as an attempt to control the conversation about Palestine.
“Here’s the Conflict Kitchen trying very hard to put a Palestinian presence on campus because they recognize Palestinians have a worthy story to tell, their culture, their food, their ideas, [but] everything is being ignored and pushed back behind the curtain or political agenda. Where do we draw the line? If we can’t have a conversation about Palestine in America, how can we have it in the Middle East?,” she said.
Food, Palestine, and Politics
Months before the restaurant changed its culinary focus, Mr. Rubin and his chefs researched and traveled to the occupied West Bank, conducting interviews and, of course, eating a lot of food. The Conflict Kitchen delegation traveled to Jerusalem and various locations in the West Bank, including Ramallah, Bil’in, Beit Zahour, Jenin, Jericho, as well as more rural areas.
Mohammad Barakat guided the Conflict Kitchen delegation through the West Bank. Born in Jerusalem in 1953, Barakat initially worked in hotels, but started his own business in 1996 giving alternative tours of Israel and the West Bank. Barakat stressed that the freedom and self-determination that Palestinians seeks is not inimical to the American belief in freedom. “We Palestinians are human, and we are seeking peace. We are looking for a better future for our families. We are not terrorists; we are not criminals. We are just normal people. We are seeking our rights, our liberty, our future. This is what we are. This is the truth,” he said in a telephone interview from East Jerusalem.
“We’d eat lunch in one person’s home and dinner in another. We were met with incredible, very traditional Arab hospitality; the red carpet was rolled out everywhere we went. It’s a perpetual contradiction of everyday life: the beauty of the landscape and the generosity of the people we met,” Mr. Rubin explained in a telephone interview.
Mr. Rubin noted that despite the focus on food, conversation would invariably drift to a common set of topics: life under the Israeli occupation, economic hardship, and resistance.
When Mr. Rubin visited an olive farmer just outside of Nablus, he learned that the farmer’s olive trees were under constant attack from the neighboring settlers. Mr. Rubin explained that this particular location “has a natural water spring which is very valuable and so the settlers are trying to gain control of it, and the farmer is harassed on a daily basis. A European NGO set up cameras to document the weekly attacks he’s having. His form of resistance isn’t to throw rocks or join any military defense. It’s just to exist, to continue to farm,” he said.
The Conflict Kitchen uses olive oil from that very farm in their salads, hummus, and baba ghanoush and the restaurant’s menu reflects the diversity of Palestinian cuisine featuring traditional dishes like musakhan, maftoul, rumaniyya, as well as traditional maza dishes and salads.
Mr. Rubin saw much in the small details of Palestinian life. When he casually asked a high school boy who wore a soccer jersey if he and his team were any good, the boy replied that he didn’t know. “He said I don’t know because it’s too hard to play other schools, [because of checkpoints] it’s too hard to travel, [so] we just play each other,” he said.
As he did with the Afghanistan version, Mr. Rubin is working on a book that features the interviews conducted with Palestinian children under the age of twelve. When asked what a young Palestinian has to look forward to, Mr. Barakat answered: “I tell you the truth, we don’t have dreams. We don’t have a future, with the occupation you cannot guarantee your life one day more. Life is day by day,” he said.
Speaking at a dinner featuring Gazan cuisine on October 17, guest speaker Laila el-Haddad, co-author of the documentary cookbook, The Gaza Kitchen explained why the relationship between Palestinian food and politics is undeniable.
Eighty percent of the population of Gaza are refugees from other areas of Palestine. Ms. El-Haddad explained, “nobody ever thinks of them [Gazans] as normal human beings, and nobody wants to learn about them and their lives. We [el-Haddad and co-author Maggie Schmitt] pose a question: what would happen if you zoom in to the street level? Imagine what a kitchen window looks like, or a kitchen counter top in Gaza. Can we imagine the kind of food they are cooking?,” she asked in her presentation.
Food is a way to preserve culture for refugees; as a result, Gazan cooking is not monolithic, but full of variations from its internal refugee populations. Cooking “helps to locate them where maps and modern dictionaries fail to do so. It helps them retain that knowledge of their land, towns that may no longer exist, but you can trace it through the food,” said el-Haddad. She said that her cookbook “use[s] food as a [form of] archeology.”
Palestinians in Gaza currently “can fish three nautical miles out to sea, where before it was twenty, and before that, it was two hundred nautical miles. So that allows for very little fishing, and the kind of fish you see in the market are smaller fish; larger fish are out further at nine nautical miles,” el-Haddad explained.
Israel controls the flow of goods in and out of Gaza as well as the access Gazans have to the sea. As a result, only the small fish are accessible, and some basic ingredients of Gazan cooking, such as sesame seeds used to make tahini, are blocked from import into Gaza, or are too expensive.
In the foreword to The Gaza Kitchen, Nancy Harmon Jenkins writes that unlike other areas of the Middle East, Gazans roast their sesame seeds when making tahini, which creates a unique flavor and gives the tahini a darker or reddish color. While Israel may prohibit the entry of sesame seeds into Gaza, it offers Israeli-made tahini at an affordable price, which alters the food culture of the population.
A Different Narrative
How possible is it to tell a different story about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the United States?
A lunchtime discussion prior to the restaurant’s turnover to Palestinian fare sparked local controversy about whether or not a discussion about Palestine is required to represent pro-Israeli perspectives in the name of balance.
One of the speakers at the September lunch discussion, Dr. Ken Boas, English professor at the University of Pittsburgh, said that Americans cannot see past a “master narrative” that prohibited inquiry beyond the most simple of understandings.
“As long as we bought into the master narrative, we could never see what was going over there [in Israel]. We need to reframe the narrative in this conflict,” Dr. Boas said in a telephone interview. He endorsed the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement as a way to bring about change.
In 2012, Dr. Boas traveled to Israel and Palestine on a tour led by the Israeli Committee against Home Demolitions. Dr. Boas was adamant that a discussion about Palestine didn’t need to represent a perspective that’s uncritical of Israel as a counterbalance.
The lunch series “was a wonderful example of free and open speech. It’s also really a metaphor for what the American Jewish community and the Israeli power structure is doing worldwide, and that is silencing Israeli criticisms and using anti-Semitism for the justification for doing so, and what is attempting to be silenced is the furthest thing from anti-Semitism you can imagine. It’s criticism of the occupation and the repression of the Palestinian people and they can’t hear that, they’re threatened by that,” Dr. Boas explained.
Support for the restaurant in the wake of the media turbulence and the death threat letter is strong. Students for Justice in Palestine organized a sit-in at the Conflict Kitchen over the dinner hour on November 10, and drew a crowd of about two hundred people.
Despite the controversy, the Conflict Kitchen’s Palestinian version is its most popular one to date. It’s serving three hundred people a day, which is a record for this small eatery.
“We’re trying to tell a set of perspectives and hopefully open up a dialog about people you might not pay attention to very much. Our goal is not to tell one story about the people. It’s not a singular community; it’s diverse. We’re trying to complicate the story instead of simplify it, raise questions, … encourage curiosity, and hopefully see ourselves in others, and recognize the common humanity and not this polarity of culture and politics,” Rubin said.
Fallout from the Death Threat
The Conflict Kitchen has announced that it will be reopening tomorrow on November 12. Mr. Rubin noted that the Pittsburgh Police are investigating the threat, but that he cannot comment further on its contents or the investigation.
The “death threat leaves me with a deep sadness, that there are individuals that would go to these lengths to silence free speech, and more specifically, the voices of Palestinians,” Mr. Rubin said. At a staff meeting on the evening of November 10, there was sadness and a sense of loss in humanity, but the supportive crowd around the Conflict Kitchen counter-acted it. “The response we’ve gotten subsequent to the threat has restored my faith in humanity, and I think for the staff as well. It’s really incredibly poignant to see people come out and post notes all over the façade, and come out and speak on behalf of their support,” Mr. Rubin said.
The negative media attention may have triggered some people in the community step out and voice opinions that they had previously kept silent. “Our mission isn’t changing. We’ll still be planning some big upcoming events. We really feel a kind of energy has been brought out that can be incredibly positive. Frankly, what we’re seeing in the streets and online is incredibly positive. That’s a good thing; we’ll try to work with a set of diverse people who are eager to keep an open conversation about Palestinian culture and the viewpoints of the Palestinians and how they need to be a part of the discourse of American public life,” Mr. Rubin said.
That said, Pittsburgh Channel 4’s television coverage of the Conflict Kitchen sit-in was the only time that anybody in the local media had approached and incorporated a Palestinian perspective into its reportage, despite repeated attempts to redirect the media to interview an actual Palestinian.
Mr. Rubin remarked that the death threat has also resulted in an outpouring of support from the communities associated with previous Conflict Kitchen iterations. “The communities we’ve worked with in the past have an incredible stake in the project and the current iteration. They recognize the value of their own voices and that of Palestinian voices. This is larger than any one version of what we do—it’s part of a bigger conversation that needs to happen on the streets of the United States, a greater understanding of the cultures and people our government might be in conflict with,” he said.
The author wishes to thank those interviewed herein, and family and friends (Kate, Hyla, Elaine) who commented on the piece.