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Was the Jewish-Muslim 'chicken soup challenge' cooked up by UK's Home Office?

East London Mosque-hosted event was backed by government counter-extremism programme and involved groups that back Birthright tours
Muslims and Jews come together to cook chicken soup as part of Mitzvah Day event (Screengrab)

Last Sunday, the East London Mosque hosted an event called "Chicken Soup Challenge", in which members of Jewish and Muslim community groups came together to cook chicken soup for the homeless. 

Jews and Muslims from youth groups, mosques and synagogues attempted to cook a thousand portions of the traditional Jewish dish as part of a programme organised by Mitzvah Day, a charity that promotes a day of social action led by the Jewish community.

But the Chicken Soup Challenge was also backed by the UK Home Office, through a programme that provides funding and support for counter-extremism projects, a detail that went unmentioned in reports produced by BBC News and The Guardian. 

Other organisations supporting the event included Muslim Aid, one of the UK's best known Islamic charities, and pro-Israel Jewish groups that organise and send their members on controversial Birthright tours. These tours to Israel seek to foster support for the state among young Jews in the diaspora, with critics saying they legitimise Israel's illegal occupation of Palestinian lands.

Home Office support for Mitzvah Day is provided through "Building a Stronger Britain Together", a counter-extremism programme that provides "in-kind support and grant funding" to "civil society and community organisations who work to create more resilient communities and stand up to extremism in all its forms".

The programme was set up as part of a counter-extremism strategy launched by the Home Office in 2015 that aimed to counter "all forms of extremism, violent and nonviolent, Islamist and the neo-Nazi”.

'Basic training style experience'

The "in-kind support" referred to by the Home Office includes social media training, technical assistance on building and improving websites, and capacity building to help groups protect individuals considered vulnerable to extremism. Organisations can apply for grants of up to £50,000, according to guidance for applicants.

Another organisation involved in the event was BBYO, a Jewish youth organisation that organises "Israel Journey" summer experiences in which participants visit locations including Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, the Dead Sea, Galilee, the occupied Golan Heights and the Negev desert.

The trips aim to create a strengthened sense of Jewish identity and a lasting connection to the state of Israel, according to the BBYO website. 

The trips have private transport and travel with security escorts. One of the activities organised under the Israel Journey Plus programmes is done in partnership with the Israeli Defence Forces and located on a specialised army educational base, where attendees can take part in a “basic training style experience”.

BBYO says the trips are about “exploring what it means to be Jewish from an Israeli point of view”. Its website also maintains a “commitment to Israel”, where participants are challenged to consider different ways of interpreting the contemporary meaning of Zionism and tie all debate and discussion to the support of Israel and Israeli people.

"Teens will leave our Tour with the confidence to define their own sense of Zionism," the website says.

Mitzvah Day and the BBYO are both also backed by the United Jewish Israel Appeal (UJIA), the London-based partner for the Birthright programme and the UK's biggest pro-Israel charity. The UJIA seeks to build "meaningful connections between the UK Jewish community and the people of Israel" and says it has been doing this for "nearly 100 years". 

'Entitled brats'

Earlier this year, Michael Wegier, the UJIA's chief executive, criticised a group of American participants in Birthright trips who had left the tours in protest at Israel's treatment of Palestinians following the killing by Israel of scores of people and injuring of thousands more in Gaza in May.

"I think people who leave a Birthright group are behaving like entitled brats," Wegier said.

"I can’t promise it will never happen in the UK, but I hope it doesn’t. They are offered a major opportunity, at the expense of the Israeli government and the Jewish people, to go to Israel for a 10-day free trip."

East London Mosque told Middle East Eye that they were not aware at the time of the event that Mitzvah Day was backed by the Home Office, or that other organisations involved organised youth trips to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.

“Muslim Aid partnered with Mitzvah Day, we just hosted the event so were not aware of all of the details,” a spokesperson said.

“We like to do our due diligence and do things that benefit our community. We work with many Jewish groups, we see no harm in working together for a common good.

“Even though Britain had a significant role in forming modern day Israel, I don’t think we should have an isolationist approach or a boycotting attitude."

[Editor's note: The spokesperson subsequently clarified that the mosque's remarks about not having an "isolationist approach or a boycotting attitude" were a specific reference to interfaith dialogue between Muslim and Jewish communities in the UK. The spokesperson added that East London Mosque had "a long history of supporting freedom and justice for the Palestinians".]

The event was in partnership with Muslim Aid (Screengrab)
Jehangir Malik, the chief executive of Muslim Aid, told MEE it was important for young Muslim and Jewish people to know that they have more in common with each other than not.

“Social action is also a priority for the Muslim faith, Jews and Muslims have very similar charitable values… it was very moving to see young people talking to each other, working together, engaging with each other, from different walks of life and different backgrounds”, he told MEE.

Muslim Aid did not respond to requests for comment about whether it was aware that Mitzvah Day was supported by the Home Office, and the involvement of Jewish organisations promoting Birthright tours.

In May, the charity issued a press statement in which it called for the "immediate end to the killing of innocent civilians" in Gaza. It said that donations would pay for medical equipment that was being used to treat hundreds of wounded people at al-Awda hospital in Jebaliya, northern Gaza.

Another fundraising effort this year aimed to raise money to support neonatal intensive care in Gaza.

In a statement sent to MEE by Mitzvah Day following publication of this story, the charity said that it had never used Home Office funding for any of its projects.

It said it had received a small grant from the Building a Stronger Britain Together fund in 2017 which was used to commission an evaluation of its work.

"Mitzvah Day is proud that Jews and Muslims united to make 1,000 portions of chicken soup to feed the homeless and vulnerable. To suggest this was some sort of British or Israeli Government plot is quite frankly ludicrous," it said.

"Mitzvah Day's entire focus is on social action at a local grassroots level and we don't get involved in international politics at all. Our projects have made a real difference for the better to the communities within which we all live and helped create constructive dialogue and lasting friendships between Jews and Muslims."

The Home Office declined to respond to questions sent by MEE about the event.

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