Disappointed in what they say is “one-sided dialogue” condemning Israel at recent campus-sponsored events, students from Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh are creating their own forum to widen the discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and peace process.
Through a project called the “CoExistence Kitchen,” the respective university communities will be offered complimentary Middle Eastern food that is both kosher and halal and presented with trivia questions about the Middle East in an effort to foster an even-handed conversation about the conflict, say organizers, and to “give context for how people are coexisting every day throughout the Middle East.”
The CoExistence Kitchen will be a pop-up restaurant operating in CMU’s University Center on Nov. 19 from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and in the William Pitt Union on Nov. 20, according to Naomi Sternstein, president of Tartans4Israel, a student group at CMU that is co-sponsoring the restaurant along with Panthers for Israel at Pitt.
“Part of the reason for CoExistence Kitchen is to start up a dialogue,” Sternstein said. “We want to spark a conversation.”
CoExistence Kitchen is the students’ response to Conflict Kitchen, a project of CMU art professor Jon Rubin and one of his former students, Dawn Weleski. Conflict Kitchen runs a restaurant kiosk in Schenley Plaza with the mission of serving food from cultures with which the United States is in conflict. The project features the food of one country at a time and offers programming in conjunction with each iteration of the restaurant. Past iterations of the restaurant have included North Korea and Iran; its current focus is on “Palestine,” but Rubin briefly closed the kiosk after the restaurant received a letter containing death threats, according to Conflict Kitchen’s Facebook page.
The Conflict Kitchen launched its Palestinian iteration on Sept. 30 with a panel discussion of the conflict from the perspective of Palestinian advocates. That event was co-sponsored by Pitt’s Honors College. But, after facing criticism that the event presented a one-sided perspective, the Honors College officially withdrew its sponsorship of Conflict Kitchen, although it still provides funding for students to attend the programming, according to a report in the Pitt News.
Pitt senior Lauren Barney felt “unsafe,” she said, while attending that first panel discussion at which one of the speakers, professor Ken Boas, equated Israel to apartheid South Africa, called for an academic and economic boycott of Israel and failed to provide a historical context for Israel’s presence in the West Bank or to condemn acts of Palestinian terrorism.
“I thought it was really biased and one-sided,” the Pittsburgh native explained. “They were applying double standards and were delegitimizing Israel and the Jewish community here as well. I didn’t feel it was OK for me to ask my questions.”
At one point, Barney said, when she was trying to make a point about SodaStream, an Israeli company that employs 500 Palestinians at its factory in the West Bank, she was shouted down by someone in the crowd yelling, “That’s in an illegal settlement!”
“Considering the event was sponsored by the Honors College, it would have been nice to get some academic discussion out of it,” she said.
But Boas told the crowd that day that “balance” was unnecessary when discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“You’re having trouble hearing one side to the story, but for a lifetime we’ve been hearing one side, from The Jewish Chronicle to The New York Times,” Boas said. “Why do we continually have to have balance and get into debates and have discussions?”
A representative of the Honors College reached out to Barney at the end of the event, thanked her for asking questions and keeping her composure and met with her a few days later to discuss future programming, she said. “I commend the Honors College for that.”
Haley Chizever, another senior at Pitt, also referred to the first Conflict Kitchen event as “one-sided.”
“I was disappointed,” she said. “I had an expectation of how Conflict Kitchen would approach this.”
Other iterations of the restaurant she attended — including Venezuela — offered information that was more balanced, she said.
“At the other ones, the issues were presented as being very complex,” she said. “But [the Palestinian iteration] is being presented as there are no other sides to the story.”
Exploring only one side of the conflict confounds the Conflict Kitchen’s very message, Chizever asserted.
“They are claiming the enemy is conflict itself,” she said, “but by taking one side in the conflict, you’re only perpetuating it.”
Chizever attended another Conflict Kitchen event, in which Chicago rapper Jasiri X accused Israeli Jews of being racists and equated the recent events in Ferguson, Mo., with the situation in Gaza. The musician explained to his audience that he had been invited by the Carter Center, a nonprofit public policy center founded by Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, on a mission to Palestine.
The rapper event was co-sponsored by Students for Justice in Palestine and the Pittsburgh Palestine Solidarity Committee, and flyers were distributed that promoted a boycott against Israel and called to “abolish apartheid.”
“There were a number of Jewish students and pro-Israel students that felt very uncomfortable with the way [the Conflict Kitchen’s speakers] were speaking” and the fact that the student government helped fund the event, said a member of Tartans4Israel, who asked not to be identified because of feeling “targeted” by some other student groups for speaking out on the issue.
“We have concerns about the types of events the Conflict Kitchen is hosting,” the student continued. “Rather than having productive dialogue, they are just fueling people’s fires.”
The Conflict Kitchen held another event on Oct. 16 advertised as “an informal lunch discussion about Palestinian food” but turned into a political diatribe against Israel, according to an attendee of the event.
That event featured Laila El-Haddad, a cookbook author from Gaza City, and owners of two local eateries: Omar Abuhejleh of Allegro Hearth Bakery and Ziad Adamo, owner of Ali Baba Middle Eastern restaurant.
“Almost nothing was said about Palestinian food,” the attendee said. Instead, the forum was used as a medium to “catalogue Israel’s supposed misdeeds and oppression of the Palestinians. The cookbook author made clear that she considered that all Arabs living in Israel proper were living under occupation. She said nothing about Hamas.”
The Conflict Kitchen has been dispensing pamphlets that it calls “wrappers” that are covered with quotes garnered from interviews with Palestinians. The wrappers are not used to wrap food. While some of the quotes on the wrappers are about Palestinian culture, others have been criticized as being inflammatory toward Israel. One quote provides a rationalization for violent Palestinian resistance: “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.”
The wrappers that will accompany the CoExistence Kitchen’s food will present information that covers a variety of perspectives and information about the peace process, according to organizers.
The CoExistence Kitchen will be funded by the Hillel Jewish University Center.
“Bringing people together and creating balance is definitely a critical objective,” Dan Marcus, executive director and CEO of Hillel JUC, said of the CoExistence Kitchen. “It’s important for us as the Hillel Jewish University Center to ensure that Jewish students have a space and opportunity to express themselves. It’s about supporting students and guiding them to find their Jewish expression.”
Jewish students at Pitt and CMU are not the only ones who have been troubled by the Conflict Kitchen.
B’nai B’rith International criticized the Heinz Endowments for providing a $50,000 grant to the project.
Heinz Endowments president Grant Oliphant responded to B’nai B’rith by disavowing any support for the Conflict Kitchen’s program on Palestine.
“I want to be especially clear that its current program on Palestine was not funded by the endowments,” he wrote. “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] emphatically does not agree with or support either the anti-Israel sentiments quoted on Conflict Kitchen’s food wrappers or the program’s refusal to incorporate Israeli or Jewish voices in its material,” Oliphant continued.
On Nov. 7, the Conflict Kitchen posted on its Facebook page that it was forced to temporarily close as it had received a “letter containing death threats.”
Weleski said that representatives of Conflict Kitchen were “not at liberty to discuss the situation.”
The Pittsburgh Bureau of Police said it was “investigating threats” against the food kiosk in Oakland, and could release no additional details.
In a show of support for the Conflict Kitchen, the Students for Justice in Palestine held a sit-in in front of Schenley Plaza at 5 p.m. Monday. About 200 people attended, according to a report in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
“Conflict Kitchen was recently forced to close its doors in light of death threats,” the SJP posted on Facebook. “These threats were a direct consequence of the ferocity of Zionist rhetoric surrounding CK’s decision to serve Palestinian cuisine. As pro-Palestinian activists in the Pittsburgh area, we have an obligation to stand against this injustice and support Conflict Kitchen.”
The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh condemned the threats of violence against the Oakland eatery.
“Attempts to silence Conflict Kitchen are diametrically opposed to the Jewish community’s desire to engage in the broadest dialogue around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” the Federation said in a statement. “We encourage both civility and respect, elements lacking in Conflict Kitchen’s current portrayal of Israelis, when addressing different perspectives on the peace process. Robust debate and discussion, not wanton disregarding or opposing narratives or attempts to intimidate or threaten violence, will further the cause of peace.
“While the Pittsburgh police work to find the party responsible for making this threat,” the statement continued, “we encourage Conflict Kitchen to stop the dissemination of literature and the provision of programming that is hurtful and incites against Israelis and Jews.”
The organizers of CoExistence Kitchen also condemned the threats.
“I, and Tartans4israel, find this especially upsetting because we are hoping to expand the conversation that Conflict Kitchen began,” Sternstein said. “CoExistence Kitchen is intended to grow the conversation about Israel and the Middle East, not replace it.”
Jewish Voice for Peace is circulating an online petition by former Pittsburgh resident Naftali Kaminski denouncing “the concerted efforts of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and the B’nai Brith organization to silence the voice of Palestinians” and calling for the Federation and Mayor Bill Peduto to state clearly “their opposition to violence and to support the right to free speech of all, including Palestinians.”
On Tuesday morning, the Conflict Kitchen announced on its website that, after consultation with law enforcement authorities, it would reopen Wednesday, Nov. 12 and continue operating under its regular business hours seven days a week. The investigation of the threat that it received is “ongoing,” the announcement said.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.