It’s a wonderful pleasure and honour to be with you tonight to honour and pay tribute to Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks who is going to be a recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award. I think it’s wonderful to have the Night of Heroes. I’d like to thank the Jewish News,The Clore Duffield Foundation, Teddy Sagi and everyone who has made this happen.
I remember meeting up with Jonathan shortly after I became Prime Minister and I said to him, you know I envy you Jonathan. Here am I, I’ve got a whole country to manage, you’ve only got to manage the Jewish community. And he paused and said to me, ‘I feel your envy is somewhat misplaced Prime Minister.’
Jonathan has courtesy, charm, insight, above all extraordinary scholarship, combined with the ability to make learning come alive and have meaning. To enlighten the listener like me without ever making them feel stupid.
It was him who inspired me to re-read the Torah, what we call the Old Testament, and rediscover its power and its wisdom. Why did the Bible devote more time to the building of the Temple than to the creation of the world? And why was it right that the Tower of Babel, representing one language amongst all people, fell and was right that it fell. All this is dazzling intellect put before me. And yet the mission of Jonathan Sacks has never been to dazzle but to educate.
Israel is not just a state but an idea, and not only a nation but the homeland of a people.
The Jewish community makes an immense contribution to Britain, of which it is rightly proud. It 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.
And Britain’s Jewish community is something to be celebrated and something that is deserving of being defended by all of us. 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.
Shortly Jonathan turns 70, as does the state of Israel. I recently came back from my 190th visit to Israel since leaving office, so it’s now something like a second home. But he was the very first to describe to me properly that Israel is not just a state but an idea, and not only a nation but the homeland of a people.
I came back in the early hours of this morning from the Middle East and what Jonathan so brilliantly describes in ‘The Dignity of Difference’ we hope to see in active cooperation between Arab nations and the state of Israel. We hope and we look forward to it.
And among Jonathan’s many qualities is his ability to extract hope from times of trouble. In his writings he always searches for the way through. Not ignoring the evidence for pessimism in the human condition- for that is realism. But charting a path for its eventual surrender to progress- for that is idealism. For him his Jewish faith and obedience to the will of god are indispensable companions on that path. And it is this faith which has taken him to the heights of achievement and respect.
But it is also his Jewish faith which has kept him rooted. A prophetic voice but one grounded in constant curiosity, striving and humility. So, we honour him tonight for all that he has said and done. But I know that he would consider it the greatest honour if we took what he said as a guide and what he has done as an example.
On the award that he is about to be given are the words of Rabbi Hillel. And it was of course Rabbi Hillel who famously when he was asked to recite the Torah standing on one leg, stood indeed on one leg and said: “Do to others, as you would have them do onto you. That is the true meaning of the Torah. Everything else is commentary, go learn it.”
On his two legs and in rather more words, Jonathan Sacks has brought light, understanding and spiritual hope.
- Transcript of Tony Blair’s speech delivered at the Jewish News Night of Heroes