For the winner of the Lifetime Achievement Sward, sponsored by the Clore Duffield Foundation, there could only be one presenter.
Former prime minister Tony Blair arrived in Britain from the Middle East on Monday morning and on Monday night he and the former Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, fell into heartfelt familiarity which clearly struck a chord with everyone present at the Night of Heroes.
The tone was struck by compere David Walliams who announced that “the leader of the Labour Party” was going to present the award to Lord Sacks, before winking and declaring, to laughter, that it was a Labour leader with different dates from the present incumbent.
And Mr Blair himself seemed slightly taken aback by the warm reception he received, admitting that “I don’t often get that kind of reaction these days”.
In remarks which spoke of the long friendship between the two men, Mr Blair recalled his first days in No 10 and telling the then Chief Rabbi that he envied him. “Here am I, Jonathan, I have a whole country to manage. You’ve only got to manage the Jewish community”. Lord Sacks truly replied: “I feel your envy is somewhat misplaced.”
Jonathan Sacks’ greatest achievement, said Mr Blair, was the ability to teach “without making you feel stupid. It was he who inspired me to re-read the Torah, what we call the Old Testament, and re-discover its power and its wisdom. His mission has never been to dazzle, but to educate.”
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Britain’s Jewish community, he said, “embodies the best of Jewish values the world over, ambition, creativity, compassion. And Jonathan in his time as chief rabbi explained it, represented it, celebrated it, and where necessary, defended it.”
In pointed comments Mr Blair declared: “I do not want to see antisemitism rear its ugly head ever in this nation. Not in this country, , not in our time, not in any space in our national life, and certainly not in any political party”.
The former premier, who had just returned from his 190th visit to Israel, said Lord Sacks was the first to explain to him that the country was “not just a state, but an idea, and not only a nation, but the homeland of the people”.
Speaking after the presentation to JN news editor Justin Cohen, Mr Blair said: “It’s a fantastic initiative by Jewish News to celebrate its community at its best, and those outside the community, and it was a great privilege for me to be part of the event.” Lord Sacks, he said, was “one of the most brilliant people of his generation, so for him to get this recognition was very special and deserved, and [the award] says a lot about the way people feel about him”.
In a film accompanying the presentation, tributes were paid to Lord Sacks by Mr Blair’s successor as prime minister, Gordon Brown, who described him not only as “a hero for our times but one of the greatest global citizens”.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said: “It’s very easy to see why he has stood out as a religious thinker — he simply has five times more brain power than anyone else around! He has read and thought and reflected throughout his life at a profound level, and you get the benefit. He does that without ceasing to be someone to whom you can relate”.
For his part, Lord Sacks said he was accepting his award on behalf of the Jewish community which he had served, and thanked Tony Blair as a steadfast friend of the community and of Israel. To great amusement, he revealed that the best thing he had ever heard from Mr Blair was the comment “I agree with Rabbi Sacks about everything, that proves I’m not Jewish!”
The message of the Night of Heroes, Lord Sacks said, “is that we can all be heroes, doesn’t matter if it’s on a big scale or a small scale. What matters is that we give to others”. He celebrates his 70th birthday next week but shows no sign of slowing down, taking as his inspiration the late Lord Weidenfeld who maintained a hectic schedule at 92. “Work hard for the sake of others”, advised Lord Sacks. “It will keep you young.”