The Conflict Kitchen, a restaurant in Schenley Plaza “that only serves cuisine from countries with which the United States is in conflict,” served up a discussion Tuesday afternoon billed as focusing on “current events in Palestine,” but quickly shifting to wholesale condemnation of Israel.
The discussion — which drew a sizable crowd, including many university students — was led by two speakers who each addressed the crowd from a Palestinian perspective: Dr. Nael Aldweib, a Pittsburgh internist originally from the West Bank, and University of Pittsburgh professor Ken Boas, chair of the board of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions-USA.
Conflict Kitchen is a project of Carnegie Mellon University art professor Jon Rubin and one of his former students, Dawn Weleski. The Tuesday event was co-sponsored by the University Honors College at Pitt.
Edward Stricker, dean of the University Honors College, predicted a one-sided presentation before the commencement of the discussion.
“My understanding is that this is the first of a series of events on the same conflict,” Stricker said in an interview. “I would have preferred two sides presented at one event, but as long as there is a second event, I am reassured.”
Stricker acknowledged that the Palestinian conflict was “controversial” and that there were “multiple sides.”
“I look forward to a second event with the other point of view,” he said, adding that Rubin committed to hosting a follow-up event.
“I’m assuming he’s actually going to do it,” Stricker said. “This is an interesting issue, and it deserves to have both sides presented, and sooner rather than later.”
Stricker’s expectation of a one-sided presentation was borne out during the course of the event, and it was made clear by Boas that presenting a one-sided perspective was intentional.
The professor analogized Israel to apartheid South Africa and the antebellum South in its treatment of Palestinians; he explicitly accused the Jewish state of racism; he called for the right of return of Palestinian refugees; and he unequivocally called for an academic and economic boycott of Israel.
When an audience member accused the discussion of “being pretty biased to the Palestinian side,” Boas responded that “balance” was unnecessary.
“You’re having trouble hearing one side to the story, but for a lifetime we’ve been hearing one side,” Boas charged, “from The Jewish Chronicle to The New York Times. Why do we continually have to have balance and get into debates and have discussions?”
Boas accused the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh of only promoting “the Israeli side.”
“Israel needs to be held accountable for what it’s done and what it’s doing,” he said. “This is not a symmetrical issue. Israel is the occupying force, and the Palestinians are the occupied people.”
Aldweib, who grew up in a West Bank town near Bethlehem, explained to the crowd the “instability” with which Palestinians lived on a daily basis and said he “hoped to find common ground, and maybe we’ll be able to live together in that community without that instability.”
Some purported facts presented by the speakers were challenged by audience members as being blatantly false, such as an assertion by Boas that only Jews were permitted to serve in the Israeli military.
Gregg Roman, director of the Federation’s Community Relations Council, learned of the Conflict Kitchen’s Palestinian discussion and its proposed panel of speakers a few weeks ago and asked if he could be part of the panel as well.
He was not permitted to do so, he said, but was told by Stricker that Rubin would call him to arrange for him to speak at a subsequent event.
As of Tuesday, Rubin had not invited Roman to speak at one of his events.
The one-sided nature of Tuesday’s Palestinian discussion “goes against what we believe is the foundation of academic freedom — a spirited dialogue, representing all different points of view on this fundamentally important subject for the Jewish community,” said Roman, who was accused by Rubin during the discussion of having tried to stop the event from taking place.
Roman challenged that accusation.
“One-sided diatribes from obviously biased individuals who promote the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement — and specifically calling for an academic boycott and even saying there should not be an Israeli voice at the table — undermines the speaker’s credibility,” he added.
Roman said he had received calls from Jewish students at both Pitt and CMU before the event telling him they felt intimidated and asking him to attend.
Roman said he hoped to be invited to speak at a future Conflict Kitchen event.
“We look forward to cooperating with Conflict Kitchen in the future if they are willing to have us be part of their discussions,” Roman said. “We invite them to take part in the larger mission of building a space of common ground exploring mutual understanding and creating an atmosphere of coexistence.
“This is not about the Israeli point of view or the Palestinian point of view,” Roman continued.
“This is about who chooses to pursue ventures that lead to making peace and those individuals and organizations that would rather pursue their own political agendas that actually end up harming efforts to make peace.”
Rubin said he was “interested in presenting many viewpoints” but would not specify which speakers or viewpoints he would be pursuing at future events concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.