Conflict Kitchen wrappers spark conversation on foundation’s role
November 6, 2014 12:00 AM
Controversy over Conflict Kitchen’s focus on Palestinian fare has continued since the menu was introduced Oct. 6.
By Melissa McCart / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Controversy over Conflict Kitchen’s focus on Palestinian fare has continued since the menu was introduced Oct. 6, with conservative groups and media now trying to link what groups say are anti-Israel messages on food wrappers distributed by the Oakland restaurant with Teresa Heinz Kerry, wife of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who has been leading the American-brokered Middle East peace talks.
In April 2013, the Heinz Endowments, chaired by Mrs. Heinz Kerry, provided a $50,000 grant to Conflict Kitchen, the nonprofit founded in 2010 that serves food from nations in conflict with the U.S. The restaurant is run by Jon Rubin, an artist and Carnegie Mellon faculty member, and Dawn Weleski.
The grant was made to assist in the restaurant’s relocation from East Liberty to Schenley Plaza in Oakland.
Last week B’nai B’rith International assailed the Heinz Endowments for providing the grant. President Allan J. Jacobs and executive vice president Daniel Mariaschin on Friday issued a statement regarding a letter it sent to the Heinz Endowments, “noting that Conflict Kitchen was a deeply unsettling choice for a grant when one considers the work of Conflict Kitchen is antithetical to the stated mission of The Heinz Endowments.”
In the statement, B’nai B’rith urged the Heinz Endowments to issue “a public disavowal” of its $50,000 grant.
John M. Ellis, senior director of communications with the Heinz Endowments, said that Mrs. Heinz Kerry was not aware of the grant. “The Heinz Endowments awards over $70 million a year in grants,” Mr. Ellis said. “A grant such as this one is managed at the staff level.”
Included in the B’nai B’rith statement was a response by the Heinz Endowments president Grant Oliphant, who rejoined the endowments in June 2014 after six years at the Pittsburgh Foundation. “I want to be especially clear that its current program on Palestine was not funded by the endowments,” he wrote. “And we would not fund such a program, precisely because it appears to be terribly at odds with the mission of promoting understanding.”
He also wrote that the Heinz Endowments “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.”
One section homes in on what the restaurant identified as a Pennsylvania-based business. “At one protest, Israeli soldiers aimed tear gas canisters directly at protesters only a few meters away,” it reads. “When they shot our friend Bassim, it made a big hole in his chest and killed him. The canister was made in Western Pennsylvania; you can see that printed on the side.”
Mr. Ellis said the endowments will not demand a return of the 2013 grant.
“There is another major issue at stake here concerning the rights of arts organizations to perform edgy and provocative programming,” he said. “That, in many ways, is the role of the arts, and while we may not always agree with the positions and opinions they express, we do support their right to express them.”
Spokeswoman Sharon Bender said B’nai B’rith International has not decided whether it will follow up with the Heinz Endowments letter from Mr. Oliphant.
The controversy comes at a delicate time for Mr. Kerry. He upset Israel starting in early April during the American-brokered Middle East peace talks. In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 8, it appeared he placed primary blame on Israel for escalating the crisis with Israel’s announcement of 700 new housing units for Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem.
The controversy apparently has not hurt business. Conflict Kitchen has attracted up to 400 customers a day.
Clarification, posted Nov. 10, 2014: In an earlier version of this story, a paragraph failed to attribute to other groups the characterization of food wrappers that they said contained anti-Israel messages.
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