It’s not that Jon Rubin and Dawn Weleski were surprised by the controversy over the latest version of their ongoing restaurant/art project, Conflict Kitchen. In the four and a half years since they set up a takeout window to serve the cuisines of conflict zones around the world, they’d seen their fair share of debate.
But this time was different: the anger over their decision to engage Palestinian food and politics boiled over into a media frenzy, an attack by B’nai Brith, a bungled response by a local arts foundation, and eventually death threats that shut down the restaurant for a few days in November.
The idea behind Conflict Kitchen was simple. Rubin, an artist and assistant professor of art at Carnegie Mellon, and Weleski, a multidisciplinary artist, work in the realm of social practice art, which is concerned with creating experiences in daily life, community-building, and activism, and often blurs the boundaries between art and the everyday. They were seeking to create a place where people could have conversations about politics and culture. They figured that food would be the easiest way to lure people into these conversations — “a way to get people through the door,” says Waleski.
“We began naming cuisines that we could offer that would fill a culinary and cultural void in Pittsburgh,” Weleski recalls. “There had never been any Venezuelan restaurants or Afghan or Persian and certainly no Palestinian or North Korean restaurants here, and then we realized that we were naming cuisines that were associated with regions in which the US was in conflict, and that’s how the idea of Conflict Kitchen came up.”
So far, there have been six Conflict Kitchens, each lasting a few months, focusing on Afghanistan, North Korea, Cuba, Iran, Venezuela, and now the Palestinian territories. Eventually they moved from the take-out window to a kiosk with outdoor seating in the heart of Pittsburgh; the restaurant is open seven days a week from 11 am to 6 pm.
Working with a team that includes chefs, a graphic designer, restaurant managers, an education and outreach coordinator, and servers and kitchen staff, each version of Conflict Kitchen has taken roughly the same form: gathering information from residents of the conflict zones, as well as locally-based immigrants and members of the diaspora; creating a menu which brings the tastes and cultural traditions of those regions to Pittsburgh; designing food wrappers that create entry points for discussion for people who come to eat at the restaurant; and programming conversations and panels touching on various aspects of life and politics in the regions.
Waleski and Rubin, sometimes accompanied by their culinary director and other team members, have travelled to the different conflict zones in order to meet families, understand viewpoints and the rhythms of daily life, glean recipes, and interview people about their lives and their concerns.
To prepare for the Palestinian version of Conflict Kitchen, they visited people in the West Bank and Nazareth; for an earlier version they went to Iran for research. Because they couldn’t go to North Korea itself due to the restrictions on foreigners, they sought out exiles living in South Korea instead. They’ve supplemented these fact-finding trips with communication via Skype, email, and Facebook, and with interviews with Pittsburgh-area members of each community.
On October 31, B’nai Brith International issued a press release, saying that they had written to the Heinz Endowments, a Pittsburgh-based charitable foundation that supports the arts, to register their objections to a $50,000 grant that had been made to Conflict Kitchen. B’nai Brith described Conflict Kitchen as “a restaurant in Pittsburgh bundling anti-Israel propaganda with food from ‘Palestine,’ which the restaurant describes as being ‘in conflict’ with the United States.”
The press release quotes a response from Grant Oliphant, the president of the Heinz Endowments, disavowing Conflict Kitchen’s project: “I want to be especially clear that its 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.” Oliphant also wrote that “[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.”
(In fact, say Rubin and Waleski, the $50,000 grant in question did cover programming costs for the Palestinian version of Conflict Kitchen, in addition to supporting their move to their new location.)
Oliphant stepped back his comments in a statement the following week, saying “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,”
However, in the meantime the story had been picked up by the national press. The fact that the Heinz Endowments is chaired by Teresa Heinz Kerry, wife of Secretary of State John Kerry, added fuel to the fire. “Anti-Israel restaurant receives funding from John Kerry’s wife’s foundation” blared Fox News, while the conservative website Brietbart announced “Report: John Kerry’s Wife Funds Radical Anti-US, Anti-Israel Eatery.” Breaking Israel News ran the headline “Kerry’s Wife Funds Anti-Israel Pop Up Restaurant.”
Other outlets, such as the Jewish Chronicle, had already complained that a September 30 event sponsored by Conflict Kitchen, which featured Dr. Nael Aldweib, a Pittsburgh doctor originally from the West Bank, and University of Pittsburgh professor Ken Boas, chair of the board of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions-USA, did not include “an Israeli perspective.”
“I’m Jewish myself so when some people say you need to include Jewish voices I find that quite ironic,” Rubin said. “We’ve actually had many Jewish voices taking part in events, and even Israeli voices — maybe not the Israeli voices that are stridently pro-Israel, but they’re here.”
The call for a pro-Israel voice misconstrues the goal of the project, say Waleski and Rubin, in that the viewpoints expressed in the printed materials and events are those of Palestinians themselves. “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,” said the pair in an email, “but to cast their viewpoints as simply anti-Israel is to reinforce the simplest, most polarizing, and dehumanizing reading of their lives and perpetuates the silencing of their voices.”
“Anyone who wants to present a pro-Israeli viewpoint is welcome to do that, and it actually happens all the time in our community as part of our commitment to free expression,” Rubin said.
On November 10, Rubin and Waleski received a letter containing death threats, and on the advice of Pittsburgh police they closed Conflict Kitchen and refused to speak to the press. After an investigation by authorities, they reopened on November 12.
For Waleski and Rubin, the issue comes down to free expression, and they are especially troubled by the Heinz Endowment’s response to B’nai Brith’s pressure. “At this point about 95% of our income comes from the public through food sales. We’re a wholly self-sustaining operation at this point. We’ve occasionally sought out additional money for different things — the Heinz grant was to move locations and funding for continued programming. But if all our additional funding dried up one day we would continue to operate,” says Rubin.
“At the same time,” he goes on, “it’s still concerning when a local endowment that’s supported some great things in our community, under various pressures have made an egregious mistake. If you’re going to have an art foundation you need to support your grantees by standing behind the principles of freedom of expression.”
When asked about whether their status as artists, and the restaurant’s role as a form of social practice art, strengthens its position as a form of free speech, they are adamant: “I don’t think we can hide behind our [status as a work of art],” says Rubin. “We can’t say, ‘well, you need to respect our freedom of expression’ any more than if someone tried to open a restaurant as a business person and wanted to do the same exact thing. We feel that both situations should be able to exist in the world and people should be able to express their viewpoints in any capacity that they wish.”
Most people who come to Conflict Kitchen, in fact, don’t realize that it is conceived as an artwork, and that’s just fine with them. “We don’t present our work to the public as artwork and we don’t typically introduce ourselves as artists,” notes Waleski, “partly because for most of our audience members and patrons the discussion of how this is art becomes a barrier to having the experience that we want people to have [here.]”
Much of that experience takes the form of community building, and indeed the Palestinian version of Conflict Kitchen seems to have had a great impact in this regard. Hadeel Salameh, a college student who describes herself as a “frequent customer and a huge fan” of the project, says “I have met various Palestinian residents that I would not have known otherwise, and have even met a distant relative.” Omer Abuhejleh, a first-generation Palestinian-American whose parents were born and raised in Nablus, says that “it has provided a venue for the expression of Palestinian identity through our food culture… For many diaspora Palestinians, it is one of the main ways that we continue to relate to our heritage.”
And for Dr. Nael Aldweib, the Pittsburgh internist who was invited to take part in the controversial September 30 panel after he met Rubin during a meal at Conflict Kitchen, the effect was even more concrete: “I think the project motivated me to read more about the Palestinian history because I had no idea why it created that much controversy.”
The rallying of local support by customers of Conflict Kitchen in the aftermath of the controversy — not to mention the fact that the Palestinian version of Conflict Kitchen has been the most popular one by far, drawing 300-400 customers per day — has convinced Waleski and Rubin that they’re providing a much-needed space for conversation.
“We’re going to keep doing what we’ve always been doing,” says Waleski of their future plans. “The recent events have shown that there’s a need for the conversation that we’re having in Pittsburgh, the one that we’re trying to stimulate, and the public has really shown its support. We’ve really become a part of the cultural and culinary fabric of this city.”
On December 8, Rubin received the Carol A. Brown Achievement Award, a $15,000 cash prize in recognition of exemplary artistic achievements. In his acceptance speech, Rubin announced he would put the entire amount towards the Palestinian version of Conflict Kitchen, and called on “Heinz Endowments, and for that matter all our local foundations and funders, add a freedom of expression clause to their bylaws.”
Aruna D’Souza writes about food at Kitchen Flânerie and is editorial director at RiffleBooks.com.