If an art project that was supported and funded by a major university targeted and demonized African-Americans or Latinos or homosexuals, Susan Tuchman is “virtually certain” that such a project would not be condoned and legitimized by that university’s officials.
“They would rightly condemn it and disassociate from it,” said Tuchman, the director of the ZOA Center for Law and Justice. “I think the administration would jump on that, and rightly so.
“So it’s hard to understand,” Tuchman continued, “that when it comes to an art project targeting Jews and Israelis, why this behavior gets a pass.”
Tuchman, who as the director of the ZOA-CLJ works to fight anti-Semitism and anti-Israel bias in the media and on college campuses, sent letters last month to both the chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh and to the president of Carnegie Mellon University in an effort to encourage both universities to publicly condemn Conflict Kitchen’s anti-Israel programming and pamphlets and to withdraw all support, financial and otherwise, from the project.
In a letter dated Nov. 12 addressed to Dr. Subra Suresh, president of CMU, and signed by both Tuchman and Morton Klein, national president of the ZOA, the ZOA catalogued the “factual distortions and outright lies” that Conflict Kitchen has been promoting. The misinformation distributed by Conflict Kitchen, the letter charged, “demonize the State of Israel, with the inevitable effect of inciting hatred of Jews and Israel.”
Noting that Conflict Kitchen receives funding through CMU’s Frank-Ratchye Studio for Creative Inquiry, the letter charged that rather than serving its stated goal of facilitating understanding and diminishing conflict, “the food kiosk is plainly determined to exacerbate tensions, by promoting one-sided anti-Israel propaganda, without regard for context and in disregard of history and the facts.”
Tuchman and Klein highlighted several excerpts from the pamphlets, or “wrappers,” that Conflict Kitchen distributes at its kiosk and at its events that were either “factually distorted” or “blatantly false.”
Those excerpts included the claim that “Israel doesn’t want any non-Jews to become citizens.”
“In fact,” the ZOA letter clarified, “Arabs make up over 20 percent of Israel’s population. Over 4 percent are neither Muslim nor Jewish, i.e., non-Arab Christians, Baha’i, etc. All citizens of Israel, regardless of whether they are Jewish or non-Jewish, have the same rights and freedoms.”
Another factual distortion, the ZOA asserted, included the pamphlets’ description of Israeli checkpoints as being “extremely difficult and inconvenient for Palestinian Arabs, without a single reference to why checkpoints exist in the first place — to prevent Arab suicide bombers and other terrorists, whose express purpose is to cross into Israel and murder innocent Israeli Jews, from carrying out their horrific mission.”
Tuchman and Klein pointed to what they said are the pamphlets’ distorted characterization of the Israeli settlements as having been created in order to “fragment and isolate Palestinian communities” and the description of the suffering of Palestinian “martyrs, with no explanation that the so-called ‘martyrs’ are actually murderers of innocent Jews who, rather than be shunned, are exalted as heroes and whose families are rewarded with pensions from the Palestinian government.”
Although the pamphlets state that the information contained therein is derived from interviews with Palestinians, the letter charged that detail is written in “tiny, easy-to-miss print.”
“Even if this is true,” Tuchman and Klein wrote, “why promote a personal opinion or narrative that Conflict Kitchen knows, or should reasonably know, is misleading and even false and is likely to incite hatred of Jews and Israel?”
They wrote they were “shocked” to learn that John Carson, head of CMU’s School of Art, and Dan Martin, dean of the College of Fine Arts, had publicly supported Conflict Kitchen, “justifying it as ‘offering a creative perspective,’ ‘inciting passion’ and ‘challeng[ing] assumptions or illustrat[ing] alternative points of view.’”
Interim Provost of CMU Nathan Urban likewise issued a public statement in support of the project, supporting the right to “freedom of expression.”
In 2008, the United States issued a report on contemporary global anti-Semitism that recognized “disproportionate criticism of the Jewish state and/or Israelis and demonizing them as barbaric, unprincipled, selfish, inhuman, etc. is anti-Semitic and has the effect of causing global audiences to associate those bad attributes with Jews in general.” According to those standards, the letter surmised, “Conflict Kitchen is promoting anti-Semitism, plain and simple.”
On Nov. 26, Urban responded to the letter, again stating that it is the university’s policy “to support artistic freedom of expression of our faculty, students and staff.”
He also pointed to Coexistence Kitchen, a project of the university’s pro-Israel group Tartans4Israel, as providing “another avenue for people to express their views.”
CMU would be hosting a “town hall meeting” in the coming weeks in response to the discussions generated by Conflict Kitchen’s Palestinian iteration, Urban wrote.
The town hall meeting for members of the university community will be held in the spring semester, according to Kenneth Walters, executive director for media relations at CMU.
Tuchman replied to Urban’s letter in another letter, dated Dec. 9., writing that it “was deeply disappointing” that Urban would characterize Conflict Kitchen’s “demonization of Jews and Israel’s as ‘artistic freedom and freedom of expression.’ ”
“If faculty, students or staff created a food kiosk that promoted hateful lies about African-Americans, Latinos or gays, neither you nor any other senior administrator would dare justify the behavior as ‘artistic freedom and freedom of expression,’” she wrote. “The notion that Conflict Kitchen is creating ‘opportunities’ for dialogue is ludicrous.”
The Center for Law and Justice has so far received no response to the letter it sent to the chancellor of Pitt. While Pitt’s Honors College officially withdrew its sponsorship of Conflict Kitchen several weeks ago, it continued to provide funding for students to attend its programming, according to a report in The Pitt News.
In an interview, Tuchman said the ZOA’s interest in corresponding with the universities “is getting some sort of statement from the administration that it doesn’t endorse these lies.”
“They are focused on freedom of expression,” she said, “but they have their own freedom of expression and can speak out against these lies about Jews and Israelis. I also think it is important for the administration to speak out against students being made to feel unsafe and shouted down.”
The upcoming town hall meeting at CMU would be the “perfect opportunity for someone to speak out and make a statement, but there’s no indication that’s going to happen,” Tuchman said. “If you don’t speak out, you send a message to your whole community and the Jewish students in that community that promoting lies against a group of people, is acceptable.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.