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Adapted from an interview between Chelsea Haines and Jon Rubin that originally appears in Guernica: A Magazine of Art & Politics.


In 2010, artists Jon Rubin and Dawn Weleski established Conflict Kitchen.

It is an eatery / take-out restaurant located in Pittsburgh that fuses art and politics to produce situations, awareness and community. Each edition of Conflict Kitchen takes up the cuisine of a country with which the United States is currently in conflict. Accompanying the cuisine are events, performances, publications and discussions. Examples of these editions include Iran, Afghanistan, Venezuela, North Korea, while the current edition focuses on Cuba. A basic menu is offered and each item is wrapped in paper printed with statements from local people from the conflict area in addition to members of the diaspora within Pittsburgh, with topics such as food, religion, work, politics and life being taken up.

In late 2014, Conflict Kitchen focused on Palestine. The programming schedule and some statements that appeared on the wrappers were taken out of context, deemed offensive and perceived as anti-Israel propaganda by local Jewish conservative organizations in addition to major media outlets. While the goal of Conflict Kitchen is to instigate questioning, conversation and debate, in this instance the topic of Palestine exposed the limits of cultural and creative expression.

Jon Rubin details the story:

Conflict Kitchen, in partnership with the Honors College at the University of Pittsburgh, co-hosted an event the week before the opening of the Palestine edition with a young Palestinian doctor, Nael Althweib, and a professor from the University of Pittsburgh, Ken Boas, who is Jewish and works on Palestinian human rights issues.

Following the announcement a representative from the Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh went to the Dean of the Honors College and explained that if we (Conflict Kitchen and UHC) did not add the Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh to the event, or if the University Honors College did not pull their sponsorship of the event, then the Federation would go to the board of trustees and ask their Jewish members to remove their support for the University. The Federation made similar threats to the Provost and Chancellor of the University.

The event went ahead as scheduled and about 60 people attended the lunch hour including the dean, in addition to members of the Jewish Federation. An incredibly civil conversation ensued. Nonetheless, the Jewish Federation, along with a few pro-Israel students, made claims that the event was rampant with anti-Semitism and they felt unsafe.

In the time after the event many tweets and blog posts from Israeli newspapers began to appear. A highly inflammatory and false narrative about Conflict Kitchen took hold: that we were facilitating anti-Israel propaganda, distributing hate-filled literature and promoting death to Israelis and Jews. Initially the Washington Free Beacon picked up on the story, which was followed by Fox News and Breitbart, who made the absurd claim that Secretary of State “John Kerry’s Wife Funds Radical Anti-U.S., Anti-Israel Eatery.” Conflict Kitchen had received a grant from the Heinz Endowments (of which Theresa Heinz is the Chairperson) the previous year. In response to the many articles that had been appearing in the media, the B’nai B’rith, whose motto is “the Global Voice of the Jewish Community,” went to the Endowments and publicly asked them to disavow the grant. Without contacting Conflict Kitchen, the Heinz Endowments gave a statement of disavowal to B’nai B’rith that read: “[the Endowments] want to be especially clear that [Conflict Kitchen’s] 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.” The statement went on to say: “[The 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.”

Besides the fact that the Heinz Foundations fundamentally ignored the premise of our project, this framing of the viewpoints of Palestinians as automatically anti-Israel is grossly oversimplified. Such statements negate the complexity of the history of Palestine and its culture, perpetuating the most dehumanizing reading of Palestinian lives and the systemic silencing of their voices. Their argument that Conflict Kitchen is “at odds with the mission of promoting understanding” is outlandish. What it implies is that when we present the viewpoints of North Koreans, Cubans, Afghans or Venezuelans we are promoting understanding, yet if we focus upon Palestine we are doing the opposite. In addition, the claim that we refuse to publish Israeli viewpoints or include Jewish voices is false. Many of the interviews done during our research trip were conducted with Israeli Arabs and the event we organized included a Jewish voice – not to mention the obvious fact that I am Jewish. Of course, these are not the Israeli or Jewish voices some people are interested in hearing. Ironically and in spite of the disavowal, I was awarded the Carol R. Brown Established Artist Award from the Pittsburgh Foundation and Heinz Endowments. All of the proceeds from this award were reinvested into the Palestinian edition of Conflict Kitchen. While we present narratives from many types of people about a wide range of topics, it became obvious that some stories were difficult for people to acknowledge. Among the many voices and perspectives we feature on the wrapper for Conflict Kitchen, a man from the West Bank who we interviewed caused considerable media attention. This was due to the fact that parts of it were taken out of context, cut up and filled with ellipses in order to distort, skew and control. He stated: “You’re punishing the Gazans who have been under siege for eight years already. You’re attacking, arresting, and killing guilty and innocent people alike. You have 1.8 million people in an area half the size of New York City, but without proper housing, water or infrastructure, and no way to make a living. They are banned from dealing with anyone outside Gaza. You are 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 are going to kill and they are going to die. Not because of religion. It doesn’t have anything to do with religion. It has to do with the way they are living and coming of age under this oppression. We are creating and perpetuating a culture of death.”

The above is not anti-Israel propaganda; it is one Palestinian’s stark and sobering assessment of a by-product of systemic oppression on the people of Gaza. It is not a story that people want to hear. But one of the things we feel the restaurant has done quite successfully is to use food as a way of bypassing people’s defenses in order to pull them into narratives that are sometimes foreign and not always comfortable. It’s also important to note that this quote is presented alongside many others, not only about resistance, but also about food, marriage, governance, life.

The criticisms we received about the quote are similar to many of the criticisms that have been presented to us by some members of the Jewish community concerning our Palestinian version. They are: first, that the U.S. is not in conflict with “Palestine” (quotes are theirs) because technically Palestine is not a recognized State and second, that Conflict Kitchen should counter the Palestinian viewpoints it presents with Israeli viewpoints, otherwise we are spreading dangerous propaganda. Throughout the U.S. and the world, controlling the master narrative of Israel means vigilantly controlling the narrative about Palestine.

One goal of Conflict Kitchen is to create a space in daily life that catalyzes political and cultural discussions that are often uncomfortable for Americans to have, mostly because they involve challenging the polarizing narratives that are constructed by much of the media and U.S. policy makers. One of the ways we do this is by providing our customers with knowledge about what is happening in people’s daily lives in these regions we are focusing on. We start this process through research trips. During these trips we collect recipes and stories from local people who are the subject of Conflict Kitchen. For the Palestinian edition, I traveled with our chef Robert Sayre and one of our assistant chefs John Shaver throughout the West Bank in June of 2014. When we travel our research strategy is simple, move from kitchen to kitchen. It’s a truly wonderful way to travel – food shopping, cooking and eating in one home for lunch and then another for dinner. The process of cooking takes us immediately into the rituals and rhythms of daily life and also places us firmly into the position of learners. We are met with incredible generosity by all of the families with which we share meals and time. This trip in particular, though, was eye-opening, as I’m sure it is for anyone who travels into the West Bank, because nearly every aspect of daily life is effected by the occupation – from check points and travel restrictions to growing settlements and economic roadblocks.

Our guide was a brilliant man named Mohammad Barakat who lives in East Jerusalem. We continued to work with him virtually via our performance project at Conflict Kitchen, called the Foreigner. Each week Mohammed was available to have lunch with our customers through the body of a local Pittsburgher who functioned as a real-time avatar of Mohammad. It’s one of many different ways we try to collapse and confuse the space between what is familiar and foreign in the project.

Our customers are a pretty diverse group and are incredibly friendly and open. After five years of running the project, we’ve definitely become part of the larger fabric of the city. As an artist who wants a more sophisticated engagement between local social dynamics and global discourse, it’s great to see that reflected in the relationships we’ve developed with our customers. For some people it’s a political act to eat from us three days a week. They recognize they are financially supporting the premise of the project each time they come. Another thing that happens is that the communities we’ve worked with here locally overlap and support each other through the years of the project. Many Iranians, Afghans and Venezuelans offered their support and regularly attended our Palestinian events.

As an example of this solidarity, during the Palestinian edition Conflict Kitchen was forced to close its doors for (a week) after receiving a death threat, in the aftermath people came out to support us and our Palestinian community in a lot of ways. While the restaurant was closed people posted statements of support all over our façade and there were even a few rallies where folks came out to express their support for the project and more specifically for the value of Palestinian voices in our community. The crisis afforded a moment for a constituent body to vocalize itself and add more breadth to the conversation around Palestine. On Nov 18th, 2014 Conflict Kitchen celebrated the re-opening of the project with a simple Palestinian potluck at the East Liberty Presbyterian Church. Around 200 people came and each brought a homemade Palestinian dish.

One conversation that needs to happen, on a local and national level, is one that addresses Palestine and Palestinian perspectives in the American cultural sphere. Obviously, it is difficult work, but that’s all the more reason why it is important territory to negotiate. I’m incredibly conscious of how disassociated many academic discourses and artistic productions are from the general public. I think our own project could be much more rigorous as well, but one of the things I like is how we occupy a place on the street, seven days a week, acting as a daily reminder that a conversation about Palestinian culture, and indeed many other cultures left out of the American narrative, needs to be a part of our larger public consciousness.


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