The concept of coexistence was put into practice last Thursday at the University of Pittsburgh when two protestors from Students for Justice in Palestine were able to come to an understanding with pro-Israel students who were operating a food kiosk called CoExistence Kitchen.
A joint project between pro-Israel students at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, and supported by the Hillel Jewish University Center, CoExistence Kitchen was staged at CMU’s University Center last Wednesday and Thursday in front of the William Pitt Union.
Despite the wind chill in Oakland registering a brisk 18 degrees, upward of 200 students and other passers-by stood in line outside at Pitt last Thursday to get a taste of free kosher and halal Middle Eastern fare — and to learn a little bit about coexistence in the Middle East and the peace process.
The two protestors, SJP president Hadeel Salameh and Nina Visgarda, came to the CoExistence Kitchen kiosk with protest signs. According to Salameh, one sign read: “Just another example of the Israeli occupiers overshadowing the Palestinian people.” The other sign read: “Middle Eastern food does not equate to Palestinian food. Failure to recognize the Palestinian people does not equal coexistence.”
Dana Sufrin, a member of Panthers for Israel at Pitt, approached the SJP protestors and engaged them in conversation, she said.
“I told them we would love to work with them in the future and that this project was not about protest, but was about coexistence,” Sufrin said. “After about five minutes of peaceful conversation, they took down their signs and left.”
The SJP students came to the event because they were concerned about the CoExistence Kitchen’s Facebook description of Palestinian food as Middle Eastern food and the quotes of Israeli residents on pamphlets that were being distributed along with the food. The pamphlets, according to Salameh, whose parents are from the West Bank, spoke of coexistence between Palestinian Israelis and Israeli Jews and not about “coexistence between the two nationalities.”
“We felt the need to make a presence,” Salameh said. “So we stood in the corner with signs in case people had questions and to offer our perspective and the rest of the story. We felt they were doing this in an incomplete way.”
The conversation with the pro-Israel students was productive, according to Salameh.
They “were very willing to hear us out,” she said, adding that they made changes to accommodate SJP’s concerns.
“They changed their Facebook page and said they would make changes to the pamphlets. They said they would take care of it, and we appreciated that,” Salameh said. “We felt comfortable.”
CoExistence Kitchen was the pro-Israel students’ response to what they felt was a one-sided portrayal of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by a project launched last month in Schenely Plaza called Conflict Kitchen. Conflict Kitchen is a kiosk that has been operating since 2010 whose stated mission is to serve food “from countries with which the United States is in conflict,” and to stimulate discussion about the “culture, politics and issues at stake within the focus region.”
The current Palestinian iteration of the project, which is run by CMU art professor Jon Rubin and one of his former students, Dawn Weleski, launched on Sept. 30, and is scheduled to run through March 2015. It operates seven days a week, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
CoExistence Kitchen was open for two days only — Nov. 19 and 20 — for three hours each midday.
So far, critics of Conflict Kitchen charge, programming that has run in conjunction with the Schenley Plaza eatery has focused on an anti-Israel narrative, and its speakers and literature have been strident in their condemnation of the Jewish state. Conflict Kitchen, which is a project of CMU’s art department and has received funding from Pitt’s Honors College, has presented speakers and distributed literature that calls for boycotting Israel, claims that Israel is an apartheid state and charges that Israelis are racists.
The Zionist Organization of America recently sent letters to the president of CMU and to the chancellor of Pitt urging the universities to publicly denounce Conflict Kitchen’s actions in distributing “false and hate-inciting” information and to withdraw all support, “financial and otherwise,” from the project. At press time, neither CMU’s president nor Pitt’s chancellor had responded to those letters.
Although several pro-Israel students have expressed discomfort stemming from Conflict Kitchen’s programming, not a single pro-Israel student or student group has engaged in any protest against it.
The intent of CoExistence Kitchen was “to make sure everyone has a voice,” said Pitt senior Elayna Tell, a member of Panthers For Israel as well as the Israel Education Committee, a coalition of pro-Israel student leaders from Pitt and CMU.
“We wanted an open dialogue,” added Josh Robertson, a member of Panthers For Israel and an organizer of CoExistence Kitchen. “We are not opposed to anyone making suggestions on how to run it.”
The CoExistence Kitchen pamphlets distributed at both CMU and at Pitt contained quotes about living in coexistence that were taken from interviews with a wide range of Israeli residents, including a Palestinian Israeli who is the director of the Jerusalem YMCA, a gay, non-Jewish Israeli and a member of the Druze community.
At the CMU kiosk, students were asked to answer “Jeopardy”-style questions about the Middle East before going through the food line. The questions ranged from “Who owns the Sinai Peninsula?” to “What is the most popular musical instrument in the Middle East?”
At both CMU and Pitt, diners at CoExistence Kitchen were encouraged to write short notes about what peace means to them and to affix them to a Peace Board.
“I think this is a great idea,” said Kate Bedell, the IT manager of student affairs at CMU, as she ate her CoExistence Kitchen lunch. “It’s a great cooperation between the students here and at Pitt and a great way of addressing the issues of Conflict Kitchen and the differences we all have.”
Listening to the answers to the trivia questions while standing in line, “I was surprised at how much I didn’t know,” Bedell added. “The questions, along with the pamphlets, are a great way of getting faculty and staff involved with what peace means.”
Mithila Joshi, a graduate student at CMU, just happened upon CoExistence Kitchen while strolling through the University Center and saw the buffet of falafel, potato cigars, Israeli salad and tahini, among other dishes.
“There was some good-looking food,” she said. “And I think this is a good medium for people who are concerned to express their thoughts and to learn from each other.”
Diners could sign up to be part of future dialogues on coexistence.
“We wanted to create a list so that we could create future events,” said Naomi Sternstein, president of Tartans4Israel at CMU. “We hope to use this as a jumping-off point.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.