Dr. Ephraim Isaac | Ethiopia

Tanenbaum Peacemaker in Action Dr. Ephraim Isaac (center) with gala guests | 2015 Tanenbaum Gala

The year is 2007 and U.S.-based Ephraim Isaac again finds himself in the role of shuttle diplomat, due to the current conflict between Ethiopia and Somalia. However, Somalia is not the neighbor he is most used to dealing with.

For the past 40 years, Ephraim has worked to reconcile religious and ethnic groups in his native Ethiopia and its neighbor to the north, Eritrea. Drawing on Ethiopia’s ancient social system, he involves elders as mediators, tapping into a tradition that has credibility among the warring parties.

Son of a Yemenite Jewish father and an Oromo Ethiopian mother, Ephraim’s diverse upbringing has enabled him to move among different people with ease. And thanks to his life experiences, his mediation efforts are colored by a deep-seated appreciation for the costs of war and the value of peace. He learned this early.

As a young boy during World War II, Ephraim hid in a bunker while listening to earth-shaking explosions and non-stop shooting. When the battle subsided, he emerged – only to learn that his best friend had been killed. He has carried this loss with him, and it explains his lifelong efforts to spare others similar pain.

Ephraim’s work as an active peacemaker accelerated in the late 1980s, when he was chosen to help resolve a stand-off between the Ethiopian government and rebel factions. He was inspired by his father’s strong emphasis on Judaism as a religion of love, peace, and responsibility for others. But as a Jew in a majority Christian country, he appreciated that people respond best when they hear a call to peace from their own traditions. It was this insight that led him to utilize Ethiopia’s traditional reconcilers and peacemakers: the community elders.

In Ephraim’s view, the elders’ traditional approach – consisting of gentle persuasion, high ethical standards, and spiritual authority – was well suited for resolving the country’s conflicts. He therefore established the Ad Hoc Ethiopian Peace Committee (AHPC) and later the Peace and Development Organization, each a vast multireligious network of respected elders who could be dispatched at any time to help reconcile warring groups. With their unmatched credibility, the elders helped negotiate a peace that replaced the oppressive Derg regime, and resulted in Eritrean autonomy in 1993.

But peace is often fragile. In recent years, new conflicts have emerged among religious groups in Ethiopia and neighboring countries, including the recent Ethiopian invasion of Somalia to depose its Islamist regime. Ever committed, Ephraim continues to jump in as a respected religious figure and elder, leading efforts to make peace. And he continues to call on his fellow elders. In his words, they are still the leaders who can forge “a clear path to resolving inter-people and international conflicts.”

Alongside a group of four standing Peace & Development Center Elders, Professor Isaac occasionally brings together larger Coalitions of Elders for specific peace activities. Within Ethiopia, Professor Isaac also played a role in securing the 2010 cease-fire that stopped a 25-year open conflict between the major branch of the Ogaden National Liberation Front and the Ethiopian government.

Today, Ephraim’s expanding network of elders and their ability to draw on indigenous cultural resources may well represent Ethiopia’s best hope for a peaceful future.