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Pittsburgh's Israeli-vs.-Palestinian Fast-Food Takeout Turf War

Pro-Israeli students started a rival to a takeout restaurant that criticized the US's role in the conflict.
November 25, 2014, 7:30pm

Conflict Kitchen in Pittsburgh (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

This post originally appeared in VICE UK

Conflict Kitchen in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is an art project, a cultural experience, and a political statement—and it's a takeout restaurant. The food and signage change every so often to highlight a country that the US is in conflict with. In the past these have included Iran, Afghanistan, Venezuela, North Korea, and Cuba.

Recently, Conflict Kitchen has focused on Palestine. This earned it the ire of people who assumed they that they were unabashedly anti-Israel ​and one-sided. The Times of Israel accused it of "serving up hummus without mentioning Hamas." They even got a death threat—which was deemed serious enough that the restaurant was closed for a week. Local supporters plastere​d the front of the building with notes of support.

Dawn Weleski and Jon Rubin are the co-directors of Conflict Kitchen. "We realized there was no Venezuelan cuisine, no Afghan or Persian cuisine [in Pittsburgh], and we realized we were naming all the countries that the US was in conflict with," said Weleski. "Food is something we are all creative with and make on a daily basis. We also all have to eat. It's a way to create an atmosphere of security to some extent, a way for people to feel safe, a way for people to engage with one another, and then something that can eventually lead to a space to share personal opinions, or perhaps sensitive things like political topics."

It wasn't until this discussion focused on Palestine and Palestinians that it drew contempt and threats of violence. As Conflict Kitchen's co-director Jon Rubin explained, "I think Palestine is just as important as Cuba in terms of a conversation that we [in the US] should be having. For certain members of the Jewish community it's a conversation that they are not always interested in having. I'm Jewish myself, and I understand the sensitivities and difficulties around conversations about Palestine and Israel, but we have no problem being critical of our own democracy. We think that is one of our rights, one of our responsibilities—to be thoughtful and engaged."

Coexistence Kitchen. Photo  ​via Hillel Jewish University Centre of Pittsburgh

While some threatened violence, others chose to disagree in a more agreeable fashion. Two student groups from nearby universities—Tartans4Israel from Carnegie Mellon University and Panthers for Israel from the University of Pittsburgh (both named after their university's mascots)—started a rival eatery called Coexistence Kitchen. Last Thursday it could be found which is to be found less than a block away from Conflict Kitchen, giving out kosher, halal Middle Eastern food. It was so popular that when I turned up, it was already all out. I spoke to Josh Robertson, a junior at the University of Pittsburgh and member of Panthers for Israel. He told me, "The idea [behind the Coexistence Kitchen] is that when we went to Conflict Kitchen we just kind of noticed that the discussion seemed very one-sided."

Elayna Tell, who is also a member of Panthers for Israel, expanded, "We wanted to show in a conflict it's not just black-and-white, there is so much gray area, and those are the places where you are going to bring people together... There is another aspect to that conversation that isn't being brought to the table. It seems like [Conflict Kitchen] was trying to perpetuate the conflict instead of bridging the gaps to solve it."

That's been a common criticism of Conflict Kitchen recently, and one that Rubin disagreed with. He said, "We have a very small Palestinian community in our city and in our country, and some people aren't interested in a Palestinian perspective without a pro-Israeli perspective. It's unfortunate, and to me it goes counter to not only what we would hope would be the best of American culture but what I think is the best of Jewish culture. I say that as someone who is Jewish—who grew up in a culture with incredible empathy and engagement with very difficult topics. That this one has to be off the table or has to presented in one light, or one scenario, is troubling. "

Josh Robertson worked to set up Coexistence Kitchen, and he told me he wasn't rejecting the Palestinian perspective but trying to highlight the Israeli side of things. "For me personally, because the conflict isn't directly between Palestine and the US, it was just to showcase the conflict from both sides."

Conflict Kitchen has also been accused of not discussing violen​ce within Palestine, but again, the people behind the project don't recognize that. Rubin said, "We've discussed Hamas several times... Violence is one thing, and Hamas is another. There is sometimes a relationship between the two, but are we leaving parts of the conversation out? What happens in the United States is that, unfortunately, many see most Palestinians as terrorists. It's a knee-jerk response some Americans have—they point right to Hamas."

Members of the two different kitchen projects seem not to be talking. "To my knowledge things have never been that open with them [Conflict Kitchen]," Josh Robertson of Coexistence Kitchen said. "I can only say that based on what I've heard from people who've tried to get in touch with them. I've not gotten in touch with them based on what I've heard and I decided not to try and interject myself upon that situation. I think it's a touchy subject, and I'd prefer to stay away from it."

Elayna Tell said the same thing. "We don't necessarily have to do it with them. We would like to—that would have ultimately been the best goal—but if we don't have that option, we're not just going to just stand around and not do something," she said. "Everyone needs to be heard, especially on campus, where there are so many voices."

Jon Rubin at least seemed a bit more willing to break bread with the Coexistence Kitchen. "To be honest, I think its great what they're doing. It's better they do something than complain about what we're doing. We are completely open to discourse. What we find counterproductive is bullying, attempts at silencing us, inflammatory rhetoric that actually shuts down discussion."

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