The Conflict Kitchen Raises Appetites and Questions on the University of Pittsburgh Campus

The Conflict Kitchen, by all appearances is a small lunch hangout for students of the University of Pittsburgh, but there is much more to this eatery than a good location and an eyebrow raising name. The name alone brings questions to mind, which are easily answered by the menu presented by the eatery as well as by the wrapper that accompanies each meal ordered. The establishment has recently become a hot bed of controversy over the last few weeks on both national and international fronts.

The name holds true here as the restaurant prides itself on serving foods from countries in current conflict with the United States. The wrappers serve the dual purpose of containing the savory samplings from across the globe as well as the intent to educate and bring cultural awareness to diners. Each wrapper contains information about the issues and people of the nations engaged in conflict. The Conflict Kitchen does this in hopes of modifying the way other cultures are viewed in the United States.

The eatery opened four years ago and has been able to sidestep any major controversy while serving up dishes from countries like Iran, Cuba, North Korea, Afghanistan and Venezuela. That all changed after a new menu with Palestinian fair was introduced last month, however.

Just days after the new menu made its debut, B’nai B’rith International sent a message to one of the restaurant’s supporters, the Heinz endowment. The letter from the group, who is often referred to as the Global Voice of the Jewish Community expressed that they wanted “to express dismay and deep concern about a grant the Endowment made to 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 Heinz Endowment quickly responded with some harsh words for the Conflict Kitchen and their new menu with a response coming from the Endowment’s president, Grant Oliphant. He said, “The Endowment 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.”

This is uncharted territory for the restaurant as they had yet to receive this kind of criticism and were thought of as a staple for college students looking for a good meal and possibly even better conversation.

The backlash continued to grow as media outlets picked up the story and began adding more heat to the fire building under the Conflict Kitchen. The real turning point in the public perception came on November 6th after an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was published. The article stated that some were attempting to “link what groups say are anti-Israel messages on food wrappers distributed by the Oakland restaurant with Teresa Heinz Kerry.”

This article ruffled many feathers in the media as well as with conservative groups, as Teresa Heinz Kerry also happens to be the wife of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry as well as heading the Heinz Endowment.

The co-director of the popular college hangout, Dawn Weleski released a small statement in the wake of the article’s release and on behalf of the restaurant, stating “In the past four years, our media coverage has consistently conveyed the purpose of the project and engaged in critical but constructive reflection. Unfortunately, we have witnessed an abrupt shift in tone since opening our Palestinian iteration.”

Not long after the initial statement from the restaurant was released, a new one was posted to their website. The statement read as follows: “Unfortunately, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter covering the story, Melissa McCart, neglected to include any of Conflict Kitchen’s answers. Additionally, we specifically requested that Ms. McCart include the viewpoints of local Palestinians in this article, as well as in her initial article on Conflict Kitchen’s Palestinian version. In both cases, she interviewed and did not include these very important voices.”

Police notified the Conflict Kitchen of death threats that were being called into the station on November 7th, which resulted in the temporary closure of the restaurant. The closure didn’t stop students from the University of Pittsburgh and others in the area from showing their support for the restaurant even while it was closed during the investigation.

In a continued showing of support, University of Pittsburgh students who are also Palestinian, view the reaction to the menu, negative views expressed by public groups and the death threats as strikingly familiar and akin to the struggles endured by the Israeli and Palestinian people.

The University of Pittsburgh has a chapter called the Students for Justice in Palestine and their president and Pitt senior, Hadeel Salameh had this to say about the controversy sparked by the menu, “America doesn’t recognize Palestine as a country and this catering cart is recognizing that Palestinians exist and recognizing that there is a Palestine. That’s sparking up the elephant in the room that no one talks about. I feel that is noteworthy all over the world whether you support Palestine or not.”

The Vice President of Students for Justice in Palestine and Pitt sophomore, Demtri Khoury agrees with Salameh, saying “The fact that they’re being recognized and the fact that the discourse isn’t expressly pro-Israel is something great to them. They see this as a kind of ray of hope.”

The Conflict Kitchen announced via Facebook that it would reopen and resume regular business hours beginning November 12th. Investigations into the death threats are ongoing, but the need to produce good food for thought as well as for the stomachs of hungry students, took center stage for the restaurant.

When the eatery opened at promised on November 12th, the plaza where it is located was loaded with student supporters as well as others in the community.

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