It is time — I thought as I recovered from Yom Kippur — to reflect upon some recent good news stories. So, now we are into a new year, let me share with you some of these stories and invite you to join me in savouring the optimism that they project.
First, we have the story of “Ofra” (not her real name), the Israeli-born but British-educated student whom I featured in my column of November 6 2008. Ofra had applied to study at the University of Westminster and was offered a place provided she obtained one grade A pass at A-Level and two grade Bs. Nothing was said about the subjects in which these grades had to be obtained, and there was no intimation that a pass in a particular subject would be discounted.
In the event, Ofra obtained one grade A and two grade Cs. However, knowing that universities routinely accept students with grades lower than those indicated in the formal offer letter, Ofra asked whether, in spite of her poorer than expected results, she might nonetheless take up the offer of a place.
The admissions tutor revealed that the minimum entry requirement for this course was in fact not an A and two Bs but, rather, three passes at grade C. So why had Ofra been refused a place? The admissions tutor cut to the chase: “The reason why you were declined,” the tutor emailed on August 14, “is that your mother tongue is deemed to be Hebrew because of your Israeli nationality and we do not count A-grades in mother-tongue languages of the applicant”.
I should explain that, at this point, I was asked — by Ofra’s lawyer — to advise on this case, because the (Jewish) secondary school she had attended seemed to be taking the view that the last thing Ofra should do was to make a fuss.
So I made a fuss on Ofra’s behalf. We enlisted the services of her MP. And we complained to the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education.
The good news is that justice has prevailed and that Ofra has now been enrolled at Westminster.
Next, I turn now to the case of the Beis Medrash Elyon school, an ultra-Orthodox secondary school for boys which operates from a house on the Golders Green Road, and which I featured in my column of April 23 last. The problem with BME is not that it is ultra-Orthodox, or that it operates from a residential dwelling. The problem is that it has for some years functioned in a residential dwelling for which the relevant planning consent has never been granted.
In that same April 23 column, I drew attention to the case of the Beis Soroh Schneirer school for girls, which occupies a converted warehouse in West Hendon. Those who run the BSS school had, in effect, morally blackmailed the planning authorities by opening the school at that site in 2004 despite the fact that Barnet Council had turned down the planning application. But what I did not reveal in that column was the fact that the individual in charge of the BSS school is also in charge of BME and clearly hoped that the tactic that craftily saved BSS from closure would save BME.
Well, the good news is that it has not. A planning inspector has now upheld the decision of Barnet Council to refuse planning permission. This does not mean that the school must close, but merely that it cannot continue to operate on its present site. The law of the land has been upheld.
I turn now to the topical topic of teshuvah — repentance — and to the maxim that it is never too late to atone.
You will doubtless have read the good news about one of Israel’s fiercest British critics, actress Vanessa Redgrave. Ms Redgrave, previously known as a vocal supporter of the PLO, has taken it upon herself to denounce those who demanded that the Toronto Film Festival abandon a celebration of the city of Tel Aviv. This is good news for the Jewish people. It’s even better news for all who value common decency over senseless bigotry.
Finally, let me wish a hearty mazeltov to professor Ada Yonath, of the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, who has been awarded (jointly) this year’s Nobel prize for chemistry. I will not attempt to explain the scientific intricacies of the research for which the prize has been awarded. Suffice it to say that Professor Yonath completed both her undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications at Israeli universities. But I must add that three Israeli universities feature in the just-released 2009 ranking of the world’s top 200 universities compiled by Times Higher Education — not bad for a country that has been at war ever since its foundation.