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An Open Letter to Ethiopians At Home and Abroad

The following letter was written by Tanenbaum Peacemaker in Action, Dr. Ephraim Isaac. You can read more about his work here.


Dear Beloved Brothers/Sisters,

“We must learn to live together as brothers [and sisters]
or perish together as fools” Martin Luther King, Jr.

Our beloved country Ethiopia has been known since ancient times as a land of peace and tolerance. The Greeks, the Hebrews, the Persians, the Prophet Muhammed, famous Renaissance scholars, (and maybe even Luther, the founder of Protestantism) all hailed Ethiopia as a home of a tolerant and peaceful people.

Tanenbaum Peacemaker in Action Dr. Ephraim Isaac at an interfaith meeting in India with Ella Gandhi, grand-daughter of Gandhi, and Dr. Ephraim Isaac’s doctoral student from Sri Lanka.

The past year I was a member of a doctoral dissertation committee for a Sri Lankan university student of psychology on the tragic Sri Lankan Civil War of 1987-2009. An estimated 100,000 civilians (according to one statistic), not counting military deaths, perished during that conflict. I learnt from reading the thesis that the root of that conflict was bitter ethnic hate among the Tamils, Sinhalese, and Moors. Unfortunately, what was originally and rightly meant to promote ethnic pride was turned into a philosophy of ethnic superiority and hatred by some politicians. The discrimination that occurred in state sector employment practices and demand for separate states over time turned into a potent and bitter hatred and generated fear that escalated into inter-ethnic hate and death and destruction.

So, today, when I hear abusive or strong words of hate from some of my compatriots, maligning one or another of our beautiful people, be it the Tigre, the Oromo, the Amhara, or any of our many other linguistics communities, it pains me very much. If I were a person capable of anger, which I am not, I would say I am madly angry. When we hate our fellow Ethiopians, we empower external forces that wish to do us harm.

Right now, I am at the famous Mayo Clinic retreat as a keynote speaker on the value of cultural diversity in the health services. Many of the doctors I meet agree with me that hate is a psychological disease that is as bad as cancer. It is a miserable illness that needs to be treated. Otherwise, it will destroy the person who harbors it. It affects the brain and heart of the hater and boils the nervous system. It can actually shorten the life of a person who is afflicted by a hateful mind. In short, we do more harm to ourselves than to others through hate.

On the contrary, love and respect of others calm the brain and nervous system. Some psychologists I know say that the positive reinforcement of others rather than their punishment gives people more positive life options. To work for the good of others and reach across lines and look to the future rather than to attack people indeed bring joy and happiness, and rich personal fulfillment.

Tanenbaum Peacemaker in Action Dr. Ephraim Isaac with inter-religious leaders from Bahrain and the USA at the Museum of Tolerance in LA.

All of the religions of our country teach love and compassion. The great prophets of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam taught love and compassion. They said love not only your neighbor but even the stranger. Jesus even taught “love your enemy as yourself.” Hating people and considering them enemy should be abhorrent to any decent Ethiopian.

I have travelled through western Ethiopia when I was at Haile Selassie Secondary School in the early 1950’s on foot or mule back in Wallaga, through southern and eastern Ethiopia as Executive Director of the National Literacy Campaign of Ethiopia (succeeding General Tadesse Biru) in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, and in northern Ethiopia, Axum, Lalibela, and Gondar when I was doing my Harvard doctoral research in the mid-1960’s. Every Ethiopian in the country side and villages I met all over the country was a humble, loving, and kind person. I do not remember meeting any arrogant, hateful, and disrespectful village person. On the contrary all imbue kindness patience and love. I do not remember being asked whether I was an Oromo, Amhara, Tigray, or other linguistic group. Their first question was “are you tired, are you hungry, do you want to come in and drink coffee?” Most of the people I encountered were poor but far richer in soul and spirit than some of us today who harbor anger and are hateful in heart.

Nobody denies that there are political differences among us. We have serious problems that we have to deal with. Those of us who are now ardently working for peace, plan to work with the Government and all political Opposition parties to find a resolution of all problems and conflicts. I think we should focus on the dangerous problem – that I called “hate” – to wash it away from our minds so that we can sit down together calmly as brothers and sisters to solve our national problems.

Nobody denies that we need in our country strong and genuine democracy. But the road to genuine democracy and political agreements is not paved by hate and anger, but through calm dialogue and respectful discourse. Then, we can form “a covenant” of timeless co-existence.

Tanenbaum Peacemaker in Action Dr. Ephraim Isaac officiating at an Ethiopian Jewish festival in NYC.

Brothers and sisters, please forgive me if I sound too accusatory. I love you also who send the hateful messages over the air waves. I pray for you so that G-d can open your heart and mind so you can repent and turn your energy from the way of anger and hate to the highway of love and kindness. We must free ourselves from the fault line of linguistic group antagonism and form instead active coalition of women, men of different communities in order to bring genuine democracy. Moreover, we all can build together our beloved homeland and fight together against our true enemies – poverty, disease and illiteracy.

Let us become an exemplary people to all of Africa as a people who love and respect each other. May G-d’s light shine upon you and give you and guide you in the way of peace.

– Dr. Ephraim Isaac, Tanenbaum Peacemaker in Action