on 11.06.13, colette avital was presented with the highest decoration in portugal: Gran Cruz do Infante Dom Henrique. this is the speech she gave afterwards:
I am both grateful and humbled by the honor bestowed upon me by the President of the Portuguese Republic, Dr. Anibal Cavaco Silva. I am also fully aware of the importance of this award, the Gra Cruz da Ordem do Infante Dom Henrique.
This is for me , in many ways, a coincidence, since the award is named after Prince Henry the Navigator – a man who became the symbol for many of the Portuguese discoveries, mainly on the coast of Africa. In a strange way, Henri the Navigator opened, five hundred yeas later, the gates of Portugal before me, an Ambassador of the State of Israel, in times when our relations were not at their highest.
I admit that Man the Discoverer always fascinated me.
In my childhood, my imagination was fired by the Great Adventures of the Portuguese Seafarers : Bartolomeu Dias, Vasco de Gama and others.
When I first arrived to Portugal, your country was preparing for the 500th Anniversary of the Discoveries, which, it should be mentioned in passing, preceded those of Spain. It was Manuela Aguiar, then Vice President of the Assembleia da Republica who first spoke to me about the role played by the Jews in the discoveries of new continents, And after her, many other personalities repeated the same story . I kept on hearing about Jewish cartographers, secret emissaries and financiers, The mysterious presence of the Jews, their history before the expulsion from Portugal was everywhere, diffused, acknowledged, but untouchable.
The evidence, the books, the documents were not there. Instinctively I felt that looking for our common past, bringing out that dimension during the celebrations, could create new bonds, a new and different relationship.
And then, on March 17m 1989 , the then President of Portugal, Mario Soares invited me to join him on a visit he made to Castello de Vide. I had no idea what to expect. During his public speech the President declared that the decay of Portugal began with the expulsion of the Jews, He then went on to ask forgiveness from the Jewish people for the suffering that Portugal had inflicted on them.
So I decided to explore. The results were astounding, and with the help of a local Committee of researchers, the Diaspora Museum and the Foreign Ministry in Israel and the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon, we organized, four years later a big exhibition, and the findings and exhibits were spectacular.
This endeavor, this journey into the past, plunged me inevitably into some of the most beautiful, but also some of the most tragic pages on our history. And so, looking at the Portuguese achievements and the Jewish contribution, I embarked upon my own voyage of discoveries. I discovered that Henry the Navigator had worked with the Jews – who had become, in those days powerful cultural Ambassadors and cosmopolitans. He brought to Sagres Judah Cresques, a Jew from Majorca, son of Abraham Cresques the cartographer, and many others.
During my four years in Portugal I learned to discover and to love the country, its physical beauty, its music and poetry, but more than anything the generosity of the Portuguese people,
So tonight it is the closing of a few circles for me.
I would like to thank you, Mr. Ambassador and through you the Portuguese Government for its warm friendship, for all the courtesies rendered to me during my term of duty in your country. And there are two Israeli gentlemen whom I would also like to thank : Yossi Beilin, who in those days was the Director General of our Foreign Office, who one day called me and asked : "How would you like to serve in a country where there are no Jews ?" .Little did Yossi know what was in store for me,
And Minster Moshe Arens who honors us with his presence tonight, who was later our Foreign Minister. In a moment of despair, at the beginning of my road, when things were not going very well, I asked him to appoint me to another country, It was he who ultimately made me stay in Portugal. Years later I am grateful to him.
Please allow me to present you with a special gift – the Lisbon Bible. It is one of the finest medieval manuscripts ever produced, and was published in 1482 before
Guttenberg's printing techniques. It was illuminated by Samuel Ibn Mussa the Scribe. It is considered one of the finest examples of Jewish art.
This too, is symbolic of our common past.