In his fine essay in The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel, Russell Berman of Stanford University, says this of the boycott Israel movement in academe: “a hatred of knowledge and of reasoned argument pervades its prose.” I thought that characterization over the top until I read this account of a panel on Palestine at Conflict Kitchen, a Pittsburgh restaurant that “serves only cuisine from countries with which the United States in in conflict.” Conflict Kitchen is directed by John Rubin, a professor of art at Carnegie Mellon University, and Dawn Weleski, an artist and former student of Rubin’s. The panel, which also included a former West Bank resident, was co-sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh’s Honors College.
At the panel, Ken Boas, a part-time English instructor at the University of Pittsburgh, came out against debates and discussions of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. When an audience member proposed that Boas’s comments, equating Israel with apartheid South Africa and calling for an academic boycott, were one sided, Boas pleaded: “why do we continually have to have balance and get into debates and have discussions?”
Rubin justifies the one-sidedness of Conflict Kitchen’s treatment of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict by claiming to air a point of view that is rarely aired. Conflict Kitchen exists to “reveal a voice that isn’t given a forum” or, as Weleski says “to have a conversation that’s not already here.” That is why Rubin has ignored “pushback from members of the local Jewish community that aren’t in support of us presenting those types of viewpoints.” There are “plenty of other [forums]” for the Israeli side of the story.
But Weleski and Rubin, in claiming to reveal a voice that lacks a forum, or to provoke a conversation that is not already happening, are endorsing a point of view expressed more straightforwardly by Boas, that the Palestinian point of view has been suppressed by Jews and the mainstream media outlets who cater to them: “for a lifetime we’ve been hearing one side, from The Jewish Chronicle to The New York Times.” Anyone who actually reads the Times knows that this is a preposterous charge ; the paper has recently given prime Sunday space to, among others, Omar Barghouti, a leader in the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, and University of Pennsylvania professor Ian Lustick, who used his space to argue for an end to Israel as a Jewish state. We expect this kind of charge from Boas, who often throws caution to the wind, as when he claimed, at an event centered on the first anniversary of September 11th, that the U.S. had paid the price for its support of Israel: “Osama made his grievances to clear to the world: stop oppressing and destroying the Palestinians.” Or when he signed a letter accusing the United States, with Israel as its proxy, of trying to “establish puppet governments across the Middle East, in a grand effort to ensure continued oil supplies to the West.” Boas can say what he likes, but those who think it’s appropriate to present him as an authority on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict should not get to say, as Rubin does, that they’re “not presenting a specific ideology. We’re just presenting food.” Of course, the decision to present Palestinian food in a restaurant that serves cuisine only “from countries with which the United States in in conflict” is to present a specific ideology, since Palestine is not a sovereign state, and the United States in not “in conflict” with the Palestinians.
But one can understand why Rubin and Weleski felt compelled to represent a “voice that isn’t given a forum” on September 30. It had after all been two days since Pittsburgh’s students had the opportunity to listen to a Palestinian-American boycott activist speak. And it would be only much later in the semester that they would get to hear boycott activist Alison Weir. And while Conflict Kitchen would be hosting the pro-boycott rapper Jasiri X, the following month, Rubin and Weleski may have thought that students who get to experience Pitt’s Israeli apartheid month but once a year especially needed a dose of the voice that isn’t given a forum.
The easily exposed lie that the Palestinian view rarely gets heard is a standard justification for one sided events of the kind Conflict Kitchen is putting on. Rubin and Weleski are entitled to peddle that lie, and to give others a forum to do so. But the honors college was right to withdraw its sponsorship.