Tanenbaum Peacemaker, Professor Ephraim Isaac, recently spoke on air with Our Sacred Journey’s Audrey Kitagawa about the intersections of his academic scholarship and peace-building work. Ephraim is the Director of The Institute of Semitic Studies, and founder of Harvard’s Afro-American Department, the Coalition of Ethiopian Elders, and the Horn of Africa Peace and Development Center. Though an impressive litany of distinctions follow Ephraim Isaac, he attributes his primary formation as a peacemaker to the influence of his Yemenite Jewish father and Oromo Ethiopian mother. From his father Ephraim memorized the stories of biblical prophets and their cry for justice. And through his mother he inherited an Ethiopian disposition towards peace and a powerful tradition of eldership.
In the interview Ephraim advocates for the important and politically distinct role of elders in resolving local conflict. He describes them as grassroots people of faith—morally upright, truthful, patient, well-informed, tireless at work, unafraid of criticism—who use their own cultural fluency to speak “heart to heart” in mediations. Through an effective approach, elders have brought reconciliation to village disputes without the use of police and negotiated the release of Germans kidnapped in Ethiopia without the involvement of politicians or conflict analysts. These interventions have brought the elders world-wide recognition and heightened attention from the U.N.
Ephraim couples his interpersonal peacemaking with rigorous academic study of ancient languages and texts. As dry and technical as his linguistic study may outwardly appear, Ephraim believes that ancient languages help us to better understand the roots and fundamentals of cultures and to bring people together. “Knowledge isn’t a frozen thing,” he explains, but a means of retrieving ancient cultural perspective that can be adapted to current situations.
Ephraim’s interview highlights an important theme among peacemakers: So much of the daily peace-building effort is about building bridges to seemingly unconnected places—between the head and heart, past and present, local and global communities—until the interdependence of our world and the primacy of human relationships within it become undeniable.