Bungled Buffet Choice Sparks “Menugate” Controversy

by on November 20th, 2012

What a hot mezze! The HBS administration found itself in a public relations debacle last week as a well-intentioned lunch menu incited a broader political debate on campus and in web venues across the Middle East.

It all started with a lunch buffet.  Like any other afternoon, Spangler Dining Hall featured an international cuisine offering to satisfy the discerning palettes of its worldly clientele.  The traditional Arab food served that afternoon – hummus, couscous, tahini – was similar to most other above-average-yet-nonetheless-overpriced grub offered daily at Harvard Business School.  The only problem was that the menu was entitled “Israeli Mezze Station.”

Days after the dish had come and gone, Sara el-Yafi, a Harvard Kennedy School alumna, posted the menu on her Facebook page along with a message protesting the menu choice for its labeling of traditional Arab foods as Israeli.  El-Yafi had received a picture of the menu from a friend on campus and decided to share it along with her message.

After tracing the origins of each menu selection back to Arab nations across North Africa and the Levant, el-Yafi objected to the implication that these foods were Israeli, calling it “a multi-cultural, multi-religious f*ck-you in the face of all Arabs at once.”  The message, which is still publicly available on her Facebook profile, uses provocative language essentially to pose the question, “WTF is going on here?”

In an interview with The Harbus, el-Yafi said her intentions were “to make light of the typical American bias favoring Israel.”  While el-Yafi acknowledged that the mislabeling was most likely an unintentional mistake on the part of the cooking staff, she was prompted to publicize her point of view because she felt that many of her Arab peers, including the friend who originally sent her the picture, were “resigned to the typical pro-Israeli stance in America” and rarely raised these kinds of issues to the powers-that-be due to skepticism that anything would change.

4,500 likes and 3,500 shares later, el-Yafi’s post had gone viral.  As the popularity of the post exploded, el-Yafi felt compelled to write to Dean Nohria and HBS’s Chief Communications Officer, Brian Kenny, to relay her original message as well as the overwhelming response to it.

Kenny, who had been monitoring the situation, offered an apology, stating, “The fact that we offended people is deeply troubling, particularly considering that our reason for having the international buffets each day is to celebrate cultural diversity… From the moment we first saw your post we began having extensive conversations internally and with Restaurant Associates to understand why this happened and how we can prevent it from happening again.”

The official apology satisfied el-Yafi and many of her supporters.  “I am impressed by how HBS took responsibility for the incident, even though the contracted company [Restaurant Associates] was in charge of the menu,” el-Yafi told The Harbus, adding on her Facebook page that this kind of prompt and thoughtful response is why “HBS is the world’s leading business school.”

While the apology brought resolution to el-Yafi’s following, it initiated a separate set of protests directed toward the HBS administration.  Israeli nationals on campus and elsewhere around the globe felt alienated by what they deemed to be overly regretful language used by Kenny.  Many Israelis on campus agree that the foods on the mezze menu are traditionally Arab though they are commonly eaten in Israel today.

But the semantics around the food misses the larger point: “By apologizing the way they did, the administration implied that the Israeli variation on Arab food was not valid.  To me, the message was that Israel would no longer be on the menu,” said Rotem Iram, a current EC, of Kenny’s comments.  Iram added that the administration was responsive and thoughtful in discussions of his concerns, but he “wish[ed] that Brian [Kenny] had publicly affirmed that Israel is a legitimate member of the community of nations here at HBS.”

Iram and other Israeli students that spoke with The Harbus saw the apology as an example of an anti-Israeli bias.  “There is a growing feeling that Israel is not as welcome as other countries on campus,” Iram said, noting that there are no case studies on Israel or Israeli companies despite the impressive economic growth the country has experienced in its short history.  Iram said he was told by professors behind closed doors that any topic related to Israel would be too controversial for a case discussion.

The administration acknowledged they would’ve taken a different approach to the apology in light of the Israeli reaction.  Reflecting on the incident, Kenny told The Harbus, “I didn’t anticipate how the apology would be interpreted by Israeli members of our community.  I want to make sure they know that this was not a dismissal of Israeli culture.”  When asked whether Israeli food would be featured on the international food station again, Kenny responded affirmatively and said the administration would welcome dish suggestions from Israeli students.

Going forward, Restaurant Associates assured The Harbus that new oversight measures will prevent this from occurring in the future.  Gina Zimmer, Vice-President of Communications for Restaurant Associates, said, “We have now identified a person on our staff who checks all signage to ensure that these types of signage errors do not happen again.”

Kenny keenly pointed out that his was a “learning experience” for him, and his comment seems to apply to all parties involved.  Most notably, the incredible amount of press attracted by the affair surprised everyone.  Kenny received calls last week from international news sources, including Dubai-based news network Al-Arabiya, which had scooped the story from Facebook.   Both the Jerusalem Post and Al-Arabiya featured major articles on el-Yafi’s activism, and a profile of el-Yafi was featured in L’Oriente-Le Jour, a major Lebanese newspaper.

In stark contrast to the heavy coverage of the event in the Middle East, “Menugate” has passed relatively unnoticed by the broader HBS student population.  When contacted for a comment, the Co-President of the Middle East and North Africa club said he was not aware of the issue.  Most of the participants in el-Yafi’s Facebook conversation seemed to be friends of el-Yafi and members of the Arab community; The Harbus noticed only a few current HBS students had commented or shared.

Indeed, the overwhelming reaction to what started as an inaccurate menu in the school cafeteria is a powerful reminder of how others across the world look to HBS as a paradigm of best practices.  Beyond the traditional business and academic realms, the incident has proven that spectators around the globe take a real interest in the cultural happenings on our small campus as an indicator of how current and future leaders view the world.

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