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Conflict Kitchen takes heat for discussion panel

By Lauren Rosenblatt / Staff Writer

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Already one for consuming large portions of controversy, Schenley Plaza takeout restaurant Conflict Kitchen heard a mouthful of concerns from the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and suffered the loss of a University Honors College sponsorship following its Palestinian discussion event.

Since opening two years ago, Conflict Kitchen’s menu has reflected the culture of countries with which the U.S. government is in conflict. The restaurant has hosted special event discussions on the region whose cuisine is its current menu theme. 

By traveling to the to-be-showcased country beforehand, the restaurant’s owners and employees are able to learn more about the food and strife within the area. Upon returning from the conflicted area, the restaurant provides information and interviews, in addition to a meal. Conflict Kitchen has previously served cuisine from Afghanistan, North Korea, Cuba, Iran and Venezuela — new this month are the Palestinian Territories. 

Preceding the Oct. 6 launch of its Palestinian menu, which includes falafel, musakhan and baqlawa, the restaurant’s panel discussion on Sept. 30 in Schenley Park was laden with controversy.

The University Honors College co-sponsored this month’s panel, which was an informal discussion about Palestine. The event drew 35 attendees, including speakers Dr. Nael Althweib, a Palestinian from the West Bank, and Professor Ken Boas, chair of the board of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions-USA, as well as Dean Edward Stricker of the University’s Honor College. 

“We’ve been getting pushback from members of the local Jewish community that aren’t in support of us presenting those types of viewpoints,” said Jon Rubin, co-director of Conflict Kitchen.

According to Rubin, the Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh requested that an Israeli perspective be represented at Conflict Kitchen’s events discussing the Palestinian Territories.

Rubin made it clear that Conflict Kitchen wouldn’t meet these demands. 

“The goal of our project is to represent the voices of the people that we are working with, [the Palestinians], so it does not make sense to have someone from Israel on every one of the panels,” Rubin said. “We may have an Israeli perspective at some point, and I understand their desire to have their narrative told, but they have plenty of other formats to do that.”

Gregg Roman, community relations council director of JFP, said the organization disagrees with the lack of Israeli representation in Conflict Kitchen’s latest event.

“The reason why I think it’s important that we have a place at the table is that [Conflict Kitchen is] saying that this is about the U.S. being in conflict with Palestine, but their justification for that is that the U.S. supports Israel and, therefore, supports Palestine,” Roman said. “So, you would think there would be an Israeli perspective.” 

Roman said the focus on Palestine’s perspective created an unjust, unacademic “breakdown between two different camps.”

“The Jewish community as a whole has certain expectations of institutions that receive public funding, like Conflict Kitchen, to not carry out programs that may delve into the area of discrimination on national origin,” Roman said. 

Rubin said the restaurant was just trying to create a spot that didn’t exist in Pittsburgh — a spot where the public could engage in culture they might be unfamiliar with.

“We all know that Palestine and Israel is a very sensitive subject, but we’re in America. And if we can’t have an open, humane, civil conversation about culture here, then how do we ever expect it to happen over there?” Rubin said during the discussion, by way of introduction. “We have to be a model.”

In light of the controversy, Stricker made the decision on Oct. 7 to no longer co-sponsor Conflict Kitchen’s lunch hour discussions. 

“We never should have been allowed to call [our involvement with Conflict Kitchen] a sponsorship,” Stricker said. “[Sponsorship] means being involved in everything in the planning, you endorse the events, you select the speakers. We never wanted to do any of that.” 

The Honors College began providing funds for students to attend the Conflict Kitchen lunch hours in January and has had funded up to 15 Pitt undergraduates to attend each event since.

Stricker said the University will continue to be a part of the discussions and pay for lunches, despite the dropped sponsorship.

“We will continue the same role we have always had. We’ve misled the public in thinking that we have more of a role than we do,” Stricker said. “No one is going to criticize the free lunches.” 

Zach Grewe, a sophomore psychology major, attended last week’s lunch hour hoping to learn more about the conflict. 

“Everyone’s heard about it. Everyone’s seen it in the news, but I feel like I’ve never had an educated view of it,” Grewe said. “I wanted to be able to participate in the conversations about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and have some frame of reference for what’s going on.”

Danielle Shuster, a freshman computer science major, said it may be a good idea to include an Israeli perspective at similar events. 

“I do think it’s fair to be representing both sides of the conflict because there are always two sides, and it is very easy to become one-sided and forget about what the other person is doing,” Shuster said.

Stricker said he was concerned before the event that the speakers would take up most of the time, and audience members wouldn’t get a chance to share their opinions or ask their questions. 

He was pleasantly surprised to find the opposite to be true.

“Each speaker talked for about five minutes, and then there was 80 minutes for discussion. And anyone in the audience could say anything that they wanted,” Stricker said. “Comments were pro-Israel, and pro-Palestine, or neither. It was a very good meeting in the sense that a lot of views got aired.” 

Grewe said the conflicts chosen can go deeper than food.

“I think the conflict is one of identity. Jewish identities and Palestinian identities are not such an ideological position because for most people it’s a position that you are born into, and it strikes at the core of what people feel,” Grewe said.

Shuster prefers to keep the relationship at a digestible level.

“These conflicts are going to happen regardless of what Conflict Kitchen is doing or not,” Shuster said.

According to Rubin, this type of situation has never occurred before. The only other scuffle in the history of the restaurant came on the day it opened.

“Someone posted a sign saying we were ‘cultural tourists.’ I’m not sure exactly what that meant, but they were probably accusing us of shallowly representing someone’s culture but … we are quite serious about what we do,” Rubin said.

Despite the looming controversy, Rubin stands by his decision of representing Palestine and thinks these small disagreements are the opposite of Conflict Kitchen’s mission.

“We try to present the larger context of what we do, which is about representing the viewpoints of people that live in these countries,” Rubin said. “We’re not presenting a specific ideology. We’re just presenting food.”

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Conflict Kitchen takes heat for discussion panel