A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of speaking (and eating!) in Conflict Kitchen after being invited by founder Jon Rubin. Truth be told, I’ve been a fan of the Kitchen ever since its establishment in 2010, and have been secretly wishing they would one day do a Palestine iteration at which I could speak. After all, this seemed right up my alley: A place that literally serves up food for thought! You CAN have your cake and eat it too! Many years and one cookbook later, my dream was fulfilled.
And so it was. On October 16, I spoke alongside Omar Abuhejleh, the Palestinian owner of the Allegro Hearth Bakery, one of Pittsburgh’s most popular specialty bakeries, in the heart of a historically Jewish squirrel Hill neighborhood, and Ziad Adamo, whose family owns a popular Middle Eastern restaurant in Pittsburgh. Omar spoke about the continued fragmentation of the Palestinian population both in historic Palestine and abroad, and the effects of being separated from one’s land.
It was a lively lunchtime conversation, had over steaming plates of Maftoul, Muskahan, Salata Gazawiya, followed by an even more inspiring dinner the next day, cooked by their chef using recipes from The Gaza Kitchen.
What makes Conflict Kitchen unique is its commitment to sharing the struggles, lives, and histories of peoples in area with which the US is either IN conflict or has furthered conflict in their own unmediated voices, and in so doing, , to encourage re-engagement and understanding. A project by Carnegie Mellon University art professor Jon Rubin and Dawn Weleski, “Conflict Kitchen uses the social relations of food and economic exchange to engage the general public in discussions about countries, cultures, and people that they might know little about outside of the polarizing rhetoric of governmental politics and the narrow lens of media headlines.”
This most recent Palestine iteration has been their most popular yet, serving up to 400 people a day. But that has not shielded it from controversy The focus has been on so-called “anti-Israeli sentiments” (see: interviews with Palestinians, about their lives in Palestine, under occupation, in their own land) printed on on the wrappers that the food comes packaged in, which include interviews with Palestinians on subjects ranging from culture to politics-a staple of all other Conflict Kitchen iterations.
“Perhaps it is hard for some people to hear that Palestinians are not happy with Israeli policies or the actions of some of its citizens, but to cast their viewpoints as simply anti-Israel is to reinforce the simplest, most polarizing, and dehumanizing reading of their lives and perpetuate the silencing of their voices” said a statement issued by Conflict Kitchen this past weekend.
Among the critics, according to Haaretz, B’nai B’rith International, “wrote a letter to the Heinz Endowments late last month to express dismay that the $50,000 grant it gave Conflict Kitchen was being used for what it called “anti-Israel propaganda”, though Heinz Endowments later denied the money was being used for this iteration of the project (oh the horror if it was, right!?).
When it comes down to it, its hard for the mainstream media to accept a Palestinian narrative as it is, without automatically assuming it is by its very nature biased (despite CK’s multiple attempts to get Pittsburgh media to interview Palestinians on the controversy, none were). This is a common theme in the media’s dealings with Palestinians-whose voices are never viewed as credible enough on their own. Even as I was interviewed by NPR station in Pittsburgh during my stay, I was ] asked whether I thought this Palestinian iteration by its very nature anti-Israeli. My response, in short: sharing the struggles of your people’s history, their continuation violation of their rights, freedoms, the fragmentation of their nation, is pro-justice, not anti-Israeli.
And that is precisely why what Conflict Kitchen is doing has been perceived as so threatening: its unsettling to read accounts by Palestinians of what Zionist militias did in 1948, and what continues to happen till this day to Palestinian land and lives. Its a reminder that in the wake of Israel’s founding, an entire nation was un-founded, uprooted, violently, purposefully, maliciously, and that this simple and cruel fact is for all practical purposes either denied or never discussed in Israel.
Our very existence, emboldened by our own voices, our narrative, our food, our identity, is a threat to the dominant discourse that informs the general public’s views on who Palestinians are and what rights they have. But more so, it is a threat to those opposed to recognizing Palestinians as full human beings entitled to freedoms, rights, and self-determination. The reaction is usually to resort to silencing Palestinian voices altogether or resorting to claims of antisemitism (an invitation I was given to speak at Pittsburgh’s World Affairs Council was abruptly withdrawn after a board member expressed concern about bringing “anti-Israeli” speakers and how the Jewish community would respond).
Here, it would serve us well to cite Franz Fanon, who so eloquently argued in his Wretched of the Earth that colonizers and occupiers make a determine effort to devalue or invisible the history of the native people they control and thus heir hope of a future national culture.
In the end, the naysayers and ne’er-do-wellers did not have their way. Jon Rubin told me he expects hundreds of people to be there today in support during the restaurant’s reopening, and hopefully, some good will come of the controversy in generating renewed interested and curiosity in Palestine and about what the heck is so threatening about Palestinian food and freedom.