Conflict Kitchen to reopen; death threat investigation continues
An Oakland eatery that closed during the weekend because of a death threat over a Palestinian-themed culinary project will reopen Wednesday, but some Jewish groups oppose what they say is the project's anti-Israel message, and financial supporters are distancing themselves from the controversy.
“We greatly appreciate all of the incredible support that we have received during our closure, and we are eager to reopen our Palestinian iteration,” Conflict Kitchen posted on its Facebook page. Co-owners Jon Rubin, a Carnegie Mellon University art professor, and Dawn Weleski declined further comment.
Conflict Kitchen serves food from countries or territories with which the United States has strained relations. It has served fare from Afghanistan, North Korea, Cuba, Iran and Venezuela. Each project is accompanied by events, publications and public discussions. In its Palestinian iteration, it is serving food with statements and messages from Palestinians.
The kitchen is a project of CMU's Frank-Ratchye Studio for Creative Inquiry. The studio receives federal funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, which prohibits programs or activities that receive its funding from discriminating for reasons including national origin.
Studio director Golan Levin said, “Not a dollar or cent of money from the NEA has gone toward Conflict Kitchen, which is almost entirely self-sustaining based on its food sales.”
Levin, who is Jewish and whose father was born in Israel, added that he is “proud to support this project as one of (the studio's) many different projects that makes possible the employment and boosts the careers of numerous local artists.”
The NEA did not return a call.
Conflict Kitchen received a $50,000 grant from the Heinz Endowments last year to help pay for the kitchen's move to a new location and to pay for programming. Teresa Heinz Kerry, the wife of Secretary of State John Kerry, is chairman of the foundation's board.
Endowments President Grant Oliphant said the foundation doesn't support anti-Israel sentiments in pamphlets handed out with food, but added, “The Endowments has a long and proud history of supporting arts organizations whose work can be challenging or controversial. ... While we sometimes do not agree with the ideas presented in the work we fund, we absolutely defend the right of artists and arts organizations to express their work freely and without fear of reprisal.”
Oliphant said he hopes the Conflict Kitchen project leads to more two-sided dialogue. He said he intends to meet with Rubin and leaders in the local Jewish and Palestinian communities to that end.
The pamphlets that the kitchen distributes include text from interviews with Palestinians living in the United States and Palestinian territories.
“You're pushing (Palestinians) to the absolute extreme. So what do you expect? Palestinians are not going to just let (Israelis) in and drop their arms,” one message reads. “No, they're going to kill, and they are going to die.”
The message described Palestinians as “living and coming of age under (Israeli) oppression.”
The Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh criticized the kitchen's project as being one-sided, noting owners declined the council's request to include an Israeli or Jewish community perspective. At the same time, it condemned the death threat against the kitchen.
“We encourage both civility and respect, elements lacking in Conflict Kitchen's current portrayal of Israelis, when addressing different perspectives of the peace process,” council Director Gregg Roman said in a statement, urging the kitchen to “stop the dissemination of literature and the provision of programming that is hurtful and incites against Israelis and Jews.”
In an Oct. 29 op-ed in The Jerusalem Post, Roman described the kitchen as “a publicly funded, anti-Israel epicenter.”
The Washington-based Jewish group B'nai B'rith International described the messages as “anti-Israel propaganda” and an “effort to demonize and delegitimize Israel.”
But at a rally Tuesday attended by several dozen Conflict Kitchen supporters, Raghav Sharma, a University of Pittsburgh sophomore who is a board member for Students for Justice in Palestine, called it “dehumanizing” to criticize the pamphlets.
“I have a bit of a gripe with complaints about the pamphlets. These are people describing what their day-to-day lives are like. I think it humanizes people who are often overlooked,” said Sharma, who is Indian.
Conflict Kitchen said it consulted with local law enforcement agencies before deciding to reopen. An investigation continues into a threatening letter sent to police, Pittsburgh police spokeswoman Sonya Toler said.
Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847.