A Fight Over Palestinian Food Leads to Death Threats

Conflict Kitchen's foray into Middle Eastern politics causes an uproar in Pittsburgh.

Conflict Kitchen takeout window. (Photo: Conflict Kitchen/Facebook)

Nov 11, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Nicole Pasulka is a writer and reporter who lives in New York City. She has written for Mother Jones, BuzzFeed, The Believer, and the New York Observer.

It's difficult to imagine anger over tabbouleh or falafel amounting to anything more than an outraged Yelp review.

In the Middle East, however, such foods stand for much more than a quick lunch. In Israel and occupied Palestine, culinary traditions shared by Jews and Arabs can lead to contentious debates—ones that have recently touched far closer to home. A Pittsburgh restaurant called Conflict Kitchen, which serves food from countries that have tense or complicated diplomatic relations with the United States, has encountered hostile opposition to its most recent menu items: Palestinian foods such as hummus, a couscous dish with chicken and chickpeas called maftoul, and a shawarma sandwich. Serving the foods, which can be found at almost any Israeli or Middle Eastern restaurant, has incited public outcry and resulted in violent threats.

The menu was not intended as a provocation but as the starting point for a conversation. "The idea was to fill what we felt was a void in Pittsburgh. So we started thinking about what can we serve and how can we have a conversation that's not already here," owner and artist Jon Rubin told CBS Pittsburgh. "We realized there has never been a Persian, or an Afghan or a Venezuelan restaurant in the city and that not only have [there] never been those restaurants, but those communities actually exist here."

(Photo: Conflict Kitchen/Facebook)

The purpose, according to Rubin, is to encourage discussion and education around different experiences and points of view. To this end, the restaurant hosts events and performances related to the country featured on its menu. However, the decision to serve Palestinian food has drawn criticism from members of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community.

“Conflict Kitchen’s focus on countries in conflict is honorable, but Palestine is not in conflict with the U.S. The restaurant is stirring up conflict for the sake of trying to be relevant,” Gregg Roman, director of the Community Relations Council at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, told the Pittsburgh Post Gazette.

On Nov. 7, Conflict Kitchen posted on its Facebook page that it "received a letter today containing death threats." The restaurant has closed "until the credibility of the letter can be established by the Pittsburgh police." The owners announced on Tuesday that the restaurant will reopen Wednesday.

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The situation is a mess—but an illustrative one. Though the divide between Israel and Palestine is real, Conflict Kitchen’s project has particular significance when you consider the ways in which Israeli and Palestinian cuisines are deeply connected. In this case, the “conflict” belies a rich culinary tradition that shows a history of cohabitation, immigration, and cultural overlap.

In 2012 London-based Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi and Palestinian chef Sami Tamimi published a cookbook called Jerusalem that explores the ways a hybrid Israeli-Arab culture has left its mark on the city’s foods.

In a discussion with Maggie Schmitt and Laila El-Haddad, authors of The Gaza Kitchen, a cookbook of Gazan foods, Ottolenghi addresses the problem with trying to claim certain dishes are either Arab or Israeli. “The question of ‘is this our food, or is this your food—who gets to name this food,’ is not occurring in a void,” he told Bon Appétit. “It’s in this intensely laden political question, with so much life and death material sustenance also being debated. So these food items become sort of symbols of a much bigger, much broader question of ownership. That’s why we can’t just sort of write it off as silly debates.”

Just ask anyone in Israel where to get the best hummus. "We can't beat them on this,'' Yedid Sapir, an Israeli Jew, told the Christian Science Monitor when referring to the two most popular hummus restaurants in Acre and Jaffa. "You can't deny that we didn't invent hummus," Sapir said. Tell that to the Lebanese, who also lay claim to the dish.

While the cultural, political, and military clashes continue in the Middle East and the United States, the Conflict Kitchen waits to reopen. But resolving these food fights—and perhaps the cultural, political, and military clashes they are a proxy for—may involve looking past modern borders.

“Jews were living in Arab countries for thousands of years, cooking those same things,” said Ottolenghi. “If I meet a Jewish woman from Aleppo and she says, ‘I used to make this kibbeh and my grandmother did,’ it’s very hard to take a stand and say, ‘Oh, it’s Arab.’ ” These are foods from a place, not an individual religious group or culture.