Jessica Rohan

The controversy over Conflict Kitchen’s Palestinian iteration advanced by pro-Israel institutions demonstrates why initiatives like Conflict Kitchen are so important.

Conflict Kitchen, a public art project and restaurant in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood, closed Saturday after police received a letter containing death threats on Friday. The threats came after heavy criticism from some of the city’s pro-Israel organizations, such as the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and the Jewish Chronicle, as well as B’nai B’rith International, that its Palestinian offering was “one-sided” and “anti-Israel”.

The restaurant, which has been featured on Warscapes' Food issue in the past, serves food from countries with which the U.S. is in conflict, switching regions about every 4 months. Past versions have featured food from Venezuela, Iran, Afghanistan, North Korea, and Cuba. Each order comes with a beautifully designed handout featuring quotations from citizens of the featured country and expats living in Pittsburgh on topics such as food, marriage, religion, and politics. 

The Palestinian menu debuted in October, and according to co-founder Jon Rubin has been their most popular theme to date, with over 300 patrons daily. 

Heinz Endowments, which awarded a grant to Conflict Kitchen, quickly retracted its support for the project after criticism from B’nai B’rith International. In response, Heinz Endowments president Grant Oliphant stated “I want to be especially clear that its current program on Palestine was not funded by the endowments and we would not fund such a program, precisely because it appears to be terribly at odds with the mission of promoting understanding.” According to Conflict Kitchen, however, their grant agreement from Heinz states its purpose was to “support Conflict Kitchen’s new programming and development at its new location in Schenley Plaza.” Rubin notes that 95% of the restaurant’s funds are from public support.

From the outset, ostensibly neutral news outlets highlighted reactions from pro-Israel organizations at the expense of more relevant perspectives; Post-Gazette reporter Melissa McCart failed to include any commentary from local Palestinians in her article published October 7th. 

Some critics, such as Director of the Community Relations Council of JFGP Gregg Roman, argued that “the U.S. is not in conflict with Palestine”. 

“[T]he Obama administration approved $71 million in aid [to Palestine] last month alone. This is not how we behave toward other countries featured by the Conflict Kitchen,” one poster remarked on 

In reality, one need only look to Afghanistan (Conflict Kitchen’s first featured cuisine) and Pakistan, which together received more U.S. aid than any other region in 2012, to see that aid and military action are not mutually exclusive in U.S. foreign policy. As with Palestine, U.S. involvement in these countries is complex; it is not fighting the governments per se, but rather groups within Afghanistan and Pakistan. America’s unyielding support of Israel as a proxy state for its interests in the Middle East is well-documented: its military operations rely on the financing and diplomatic support of the U.S. government. 

The true source of discontent for Conflict Kitchen’s critics, however, lies in the title of a post by Meital Rosenberg: “Conflict Kitchen must address Israel if it addresses Palestine”.

In fact, the flyer does mention Israel, as it should: Israel is an inescapable force in the lives of all Palestinians. As with all previous versions, the Palestine flyer only features quotes from the people whose food is being represented. It’s as if, in the minds of pro-Israel advocates, Palestinians cannot speak for themselves without commentary from Israel. Roman even invited Rubin to discuss the issue with JFGP - the issue being that Palestinians living in Gaza had unflattering opinions of Israel when interviewed for the flyer distributed with their native cuisine.

When Conflict Kitchen did co-host a discussion, with the University Honors College at the University of Pittsburgh, which included internist Nael Aldweib from the West Bank and Ken Boas, chair of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions USA, the Post-Gazette headline read “Conflict Kitchen’s Palestinian focus criticized as one-sided”, taking its cue from a similar headline about the event in the Jewish Chronicle. 

The article claims that “tensions flared” during the discussion, but cites nothing in particular from the event. Hadeel Salameh, who was in attendance (and is one of the few Palestinian residents whose commentary has appeared in local media), wrote on that “the discussion throughout its duration was calm and not limited to the voices of Ken Boas or the Palestinian guest speaker, Nael Aldweib, but inviting to all attendees...[i]t’s disappointing that the amount of respect for differing views and actual conversation that took place at the event were lost in the article.”

Conflict Kitchen opened a space for public discourse that does not always exist, allowing Palestinians to address the restaurant’s consumers directly: “At one protest, Israeli soldiers aimed tear gas canisters directly at protesters only a few meters away. When they shot our friend Bassim, it made a big hole in his chest and killed him. The canister was made in Western Pennsylvania; you can see that printed on the side,” the flyer reads.

Why do some Americans feel that their ties to Israel compel their input in the promotion of Palestinian cuisine? Why is it impermissible for Palestinians featured in the handout to speak negatively of their experiences living under Israeli occupation? Ultimately, it is because a crucial project of Zionism is the erasure of Palestinian identity. 

To feature the food and opinions of Palestinians themselves is to provide a fuller narrative of Palestine; to acknowledge our involvement, as citizens of a democratically elected government, in the oppression of and violence against Palestinians is a direct threat to American support of Israel.

“We are there to be a forum to engage Pittsburghers, or customers in the general public in conversations that they might not ordinarily have,” Rubin says.

The fact that organizations like the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh have been able to insert themselves so forcefully into this discussion, while the voices of local Palestinians are ignored, is exactly why Conflict Kitchen’s initiative is so important. Roman framed his dissent as an invitation to dialogue, but the import of his statements is precisely the opposite.

*UPDATE: The Conflict Kitchen announced plans to re-open today (11/12), issuing the following statement: "After consultation with local law enforcement agencies, Conflict Kitchen will reopen Wednesday, November 12 and continue operating under our regular business hours from 11am-6pm, 7 days a week.  We greatly appreciate all of the incredible support that we have received during our closure, and we are eager to reopen our Palestinian iteration. The investigation on the threat that we received is ongoing."


Image via Conflict Kitchen.

Jessica Rohan is an Associate Editor for Warscapes. She is a freelance writer and researcher based in Philadelphia. She received a BA in 2013 from the University of Pittsburgh, where she studied sociology, anthropology and global studies with concentrations in the Middle East and North Africa and conflict/conflict resolution. She is interested in global media and the role of public art in social movements. Twitter @jessica_rohan