Conflict Kitchen opposition discourages healthy discourse
The recent public discussion surrounding Conflict Kitchen's decision to serve Palestinian food has been lacking, to say the least. Very little ink spilled has been spilled over what the opposition to Conflict Kitchen actually is. While Conflict Kitchen is ultimately justified in serving Palestinian food, the public has a much more important right to adversarial and engaging discourse.
This discourse is what allows people to cultivate informed opinions and eventually contribute to a more diverse and responsive political environment populated by more views than just “blue” and “red.” Unfortunately, it seems many people who have chosen to back Conflict Kitchen have skipped over that engaging and adversarial bit.
A preponderance of blog posts, including a recent article on Jezebel, have criticized the opposition to Conflict Kitchen. Many have featured a quote from Gregg Roman, Director of the Community Relations Council at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, stating that "Palestine is not in conflict with the U.S." and "the restaurant is stirring up conflict for the sake of trying to be relevant.” This quote indicates that those in opposition to Conflict Kitchen are struggling to put together real arguments. Though Roman uttered a bizarre sentence, one sentence from one person is a pretty disappointing attempt at capturing the public unrest with Conflict Kitchen. It conjures up conservative images of liberals who talk past those who disagree and pat themselves on the back for being worldly.
However, it is important that the actual common argument against Conflict Kitchen’s actions that I gathered from conversations with people in Squirrel Hill, even if it fails to survive close scrutiny, gets in print somewhere.
Many of the conversations I have had gave me the general sense that people take issue with the word Palestinian. It is a very common position that the idea of the Palestinian was created to indict Israel. The gist of the argument is that, prior to the escalation of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Palestinians were largely referred to as Arab refugees — natives of Jordan, Lebanon, and other Middle Eastern nations. The unification of their identities was created to justify the establishment of a Palestinian state where Israel had been implanted by the United Nations. Some people feel, then, that Conflict Kitchen serving Palestinian food is legitimizing an identity constructed to indict Israel.
This argument is not exactly a death knell. The idea itself that Palestinians did not exist before Israel is debatable. However, people have been born in Gaza and the West Bank well after this conflict started and have known no homeland except for Palestine; it clearly is a nationality now, even if it was not before.
Further, even if it is entirely true that Palestinians only exist to de-legitimize Israel’s claim to the land, the fact that actions in the area have forced people to fundamentally alter their identities is more likely an issue with Israel than with Palestine.
However, to gloss over it in public discussion of Conflict Kitchen serving Palestinian food defeats the entire purpose of public discourse. The view that conflicts are too complicated for us to understand from afar—and that we should just focus on our shared humanity—helps no one. It’s just a way to convince ourselves that we’re good people while the world burns outside of our peripherals.
Actually talking about things helps people know the issues, and heated arguments result in both parties understanding the other side’s point of view better. The absolute lack of engagement with arguments surrounding this conflict further entrenches people on both sides of the field. Many people who are against Conflict Kitchen's decision to serve Palestinian food will start to believe that others are in favor of it just because they’re politically ignorant, and many who support it will believe those who disagree with them are knuckle-dragging bigots.
There are plenty of reasons for people to assume that the Jewish community believes the humanization of Palestinians to be anti-Semitic. Many Jews have taken up the pro-Israel cause due to the occasionally blatantly anti-Jewish sentiment that comes out of the anti-Israel media coverage.
If you don’t think the painting of this conflict as the Israeli military machine gleefully murdering Palestinian children is a not-so-subtle reference to the Jewish media machine and blood libel, you’re kidding yourself. If you think that attacks on temples in Germany and the shooting at the Jewish Museum of Belgium — justified as anti-Israel protests — weren't anti-Semitic, you have superseded kidding yourself and might have some genocidal tendencies.
People have equated pro-Israeli sentiment with the dehumanization of Palestinians. However, many Jewish people and organizations have said that criticism of Israel’s security policy is not only good, but necessary. Many Jewish people believe that Israel’s politics are a corruption of the Torah, and they want Israel to take a new tack. Even pro-Israel Jews tend to support the view that the Palestinians need a homeland, as long as Israel retains its current borders.
Humanizing the Palestinian people is not something that scares the Jewish community, nor is the Jewish community against it in any way — not even those who oppose the serving of Palestinian food at Conflict Kitchen. They simply have questions about what being Palestinian means, and believe the answer to be in political opposition to them.
The serving of Palestinian food at Conflict Kitchen is almost certainly not anti-Israel, and even if it was, Conflict Kitchen is within its rights to oppose whomever they want. The humanization of Palestinians is also important because Americans often think of foreigners as distantly removed from them. Sometimes we forget that the rest of the world is filled with people, not news headlines. Food is a very stark reminder of this.
However, portraying the resistance to Conflict Kitchen as a neurotic reaction to the humanization of Palestinians does a disservice to the public understanding of the conflict. Not talking about conflicts every chance we get simply makes us ignorant. I probably have not mentioned even half of the arguments people actually make against Conflict Kitchen, but the real problem here is the fact that even a meager straw-man argument is the closest public discourse has come to truly engaging the issue.