Bechol Lashon Research Scholar, Prof. Ephraim Isaac, Discusses Ethiopia

Professor Ephraim Isaac

Ephraim Isaac (born May 29, 1936) is a scholar of ancient Semitic Languages & Civilization, and African/Ethiopian Languages and Religion. He is of Ethiopian and Yemenite ancestry. He is the Director of the Institute of Semitic Studies (Princeton, New Jersey) and the Chair of the Ethiopian Peace and Development Centre. The Ethiopian Herald’s Solomon Gebre-Medhin approached him and they discussed various issues.

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Herald: What is your reaction on the culture of tolerance that Ethiopia is known for? And what are the major threats to this tolerance culture and the possible ways to secure it?

Prof. Ephraim: Since ancient times, Ethiopia has been known as a country of tolerance. I personally and many other people too often prefer to use the word acceptance. The ancient Greeks spoke about Ethiopia as a land of justice, tolerance, and hospitality where the gods indeed also came to feast. This was repeated in a very extensive way by a Greco-Roman writer from the first century BC by the name Diodorus Siculus. He was a very well-known writer that people attributed to him as the first historian of England. And he wrote one small book called ‘Ethiopia’. Diodorus wrote that Ethiopia is a land where the Egyptians got their civilization. He speaks about the governmental administration as having been taken by the Egyptians from the Ethiopians that religious belief and processions as having been the custom of the Ethiopians that the Egyptians have adapted.

A few centuries later, a Roman writer by the name Procopius wrote of Ethiopia, as one of the greatest three world Empires. He wrote that Ethiopia is a land of cultured and tolerant people. And in Pre-Christian times, Ethiopians defeated and conquered the Persian invaders; instead of killing or imprisoning the Persians, they gave them a banquet, which is amazing. And after the banquet the Ethiopian king said to the invading army, “Go back to your country in peace, but do not come back again; if you do, we will punish you!” All these stories appear about Ethiopia.

The spirit of tolerance and acceptance has really penetrated our culture. In Ethiopian culture, in the medieval time, there were rulers who had fights but often treated their enemies in a very benevolent way. What amazes me is that some of the most recent Ethiopian writers themselves were reflecting upon ideas that later came to be known as the enlightenment about inter-social understanding. One is the story of Kristos Samra (Gadle Kiristos Semra), in the 16th Century. Kiristos Semra was a woman who really suffered a lot from the conflict between the Orthodox and the Catholic churches. She wrote a book and she is known as “the mother of a peace”. Also about the same time, there was a writer called Zara Yacob, the Ethiopian Philosopher, and what he writes about the inter-societal understanding, acceptance is so advanced.

And even in the Oromo tradition, there was no capital punishment. Today, you see the Western World boasting about their advancement and criticizing countries with capital punishment. However, in many parts of the Oromo tradition, murderers are brought together and judged according to their tradition, and the elderly even order families to inter-marry.

There was a major inter-religious or ecumenical conference in Florence, Italy in 1439 where the Ethiopian Church was invited to take part. Emperor Zara Yacob ordered some monks from Jerusalem to attend the conference. It shows how Ethiopia even then was in the international consciousness. Damiago da Goes a Portuguese humanist and writer after talking to the monks, who attended the Council of Florence, wrote a book about the faith, culture and religion of the Ethiopian people. In his book he said the Ethiopian people live in harmony despite their differences in religion, but we here in Europe are killing and persecuting each other.

Herald: What is expected and who can preserve the deep rooted tolerance and acceptance in the country?

Prof. Ephraim: Intolerance is not an aspect of Ethiopian culture. In Ethiopia, whether you go to south, north, west or east, the farmers, the ordinary people are the same. The way they live, they think, their food and so on are identical. The problem is Addis Ababa, America, and Europe; the educated have been exposed to the discriminatory culture which has made them totally brainwashed or confused. When you go to countryside, there are similarities among the Ethiopian people, in terms of the food, the clothing, and love of strangers. The mentality and thinking is striking. I have been to many parts of the nation and I was not asked which tribe I am from.

Therefore, to preserve these old, good cultures, I have proposed many times that every Ethiopian studied in Europe or America, when he or she returns to Ethiopia should be ordered to live in the country village for three months at least. And they should get another degree, which I call it a “Doctor of Village Life.” To preserve our culture, we need to educate the educated.

Herald: Does it mean that modern education is against culture, and what type of education should be there?

Prof Ephraim: Many of us who go to study abroad benefit greatly by learning scientific knowledge. At Harvard University, I always told my students that they are advanced in modern technologies and we, Africans, need to learn from them. But I also taught them that they should sit to our feet and learn something about human psychology. When it comes to human psychology, we are ahead of them. Look at the life of our people– you are in a village and everyone is concerned about your well-being. I live in Princeton for the past twenty years. Until recently, I did not know a single person closely within a mile of where I live. Our culture is a communal life. Their life is lonely in the crowd. Our educated elite should relearn our traditional, communal, social life. We should learn how to respect and love our fellow people and not to be egoist.

Herald: Now the nation is on its way to hold elections this coming May. How do you describe the overall political atmosphere and election process from all parties including the National Electoral Board? And do you think the political parties have learnt from the mistake made in 2005?

Prof. Ephraim: I live in the United States; but I have heard and read a lot about the election. I came last week and I have not had a chance to follow all the developments. My great hope is that we should be broad-minded and not waste our time on squabbling and fighting with each other. I don’t know what the sources are but my hope is that everyone will be respectful to the feeling of others.

Herald: You were one of the elderly in the Peace Committee in the aftermath of the 2005 election. How do you now evaluate your activities in the team and were you successful?

Prof. Ephraim: Thanks to God. We did our best. I know that all Ethiopians have the same blood. That is why I was involved in the reconciliation of the government and the CUD (Coalition for Unity and Democracy) leaders who were in jail. I really believe that all Ethiopians are goodhearted people. As Freud said, the root of conflict is not race, nor is it religion. It is the instinct of violence and love that exist in us. A friend of mine told me that if having one religion, one language and one people brings peace, Somalia would be the most peaceful country. My great prayer is that all political personalities, members of the opposition (I prefer to say competitors) can say we all are the same and let us look to each other as brothers and sisters. Ultimately, I am sure all political leaders want the best for Ethiopia– poverty, disease, illiteracy abolished. I am sure they love their country. The people in Diaspora also love Ethiopia. If our objective is to have a great, successful and respected Ethiopia, then let us stop badmouthing each other. The tongue is the worst weapon in the world. Let us use respectful languages when we compete, let us use kind words to each other. And if we do that, I think this country will be the best role model for Africa.

Herald: Are religious institutions affecting their responsibilities in inculcating good values in their followers mind?

Prof. Ephraim: I have been living in America for a long time but I have always been connected to Ethiopia. I know a good deal of what is going on in Ethiopia. However, I do get the feeling that our moral values are a little bit lacking. The knowledge of religion does not necessarily make you a good person but it can help. The kind of knowledge religion inculcates in you should make you love your fellow human beings. The knowledge of rituals adds colour to our lives; but respect and having good moral requires a combination of religious teachings and family upbringing. I am very happy to say that the people of Ethiopia are upright and have high moral character. That may be the contribution of its religion. But it makes me sad that within the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewhado Church there are two synods. And within Islam, there are two or three groups fighting with each other. This is heartbreaking because religions are supposed to be examples of coexistence and respect. We must reflect up on this with humility and in fear of God.

Herald: As a Chair of Ethiopian Peace & Development Centre, have your efforts been met such as with the reconciliation between the religious fathers here in Ethiopia and America?

Prof. Ephraim: There are attempts in that regard. But remember that Rome is not built in a day. We have been appealing to the Church leaders, and the Muslim leaders. We want the religious leaders to show what unity means. If they are showing this kind of friction and reflection, how can they be respected? Yes, our PDC (Peace & Development Centre) certainly has been involved, but it takes time.

Herald: Some say Ge’ez is dying; others say it is reviving. What is your view on this? Who does Ge’ez belong to, and what has it contributed?

Prof Ephraim: Let me put it this way. Ge’ez is one of the most important languages of the world culture. As far as I’m concerned, it could be the language of Nigeria, or China. It is a very important language. Ge’ez is one of the seven languages into which the Bible was translated. Many people do not understand how important the Bible is for world’s civilizations. The Bible is a religious book but beyond that it is a foundation of modern world culture. Christians, Jews and Muslims all depend on what we call the “Old Testament” or the Hebrew Bible. You cannot understand European music– Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms. They all draw stories from the Bible. You cannot understand the most famous art in the world–Michelangelo, Rafael, Davinci and Ethiopian art unless you have read the Bible. They all paint figures from the Bible. A lot of paintings of Islam are also Biblical. And if you want to read the literature of Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, any of the most important literature until the 20th century, the language they use, and the imagery they draw is from the Bible. Ge’ez being one of the seven languages the Bible is translated into, it is of central importance.

If you are a scholar, Christian, Muslim or Jewish, you want to know more about the history of the Bible. You want to study it in a critical way, scholarly speaking, you have to know something about the Ge’ez language. There are many important ancient books which have been lost but are found only in Ge’ez such as the Book of Enoch and Book of Jubilees, Kufale in Amharic. They say today if you want to understand the root of Christianity, Islam, and aspects of Judaism, you have to know what the Book of Enoch says, which is found complete only in Ge’ez language. If you want to understand some of the early Biblical exegesis, you need to know the Ge’ez language. I found a book called “Zenahu la-Yoseph”( History of Joseph). I don’t think scholars know that it exists here in Ethiopia, but it is here in the Ge’ez language. It is about the exposition of the life of Joseph the son of Jacob from the Bible. There are thousands of books in Ge’ez held in the monasteries. And these manuscripts are very valuable. I once saw a businessman in New York selling a Ge’ez book “Dirsane Michael” for half a million dollar.

Ge’ez is not just a treasure of Ethiopia; it is a world treasure. If Ge’ez was a language of China or Nigeria, scholars still would be interested in that language. Ge’ez happens to be an ancient language of Ethiopia; it is not only for Amhara, Tigre, Oromo, Wolayita, and so on. And Ethiopia is not Amhara, Tigre, Somali, and so on; Ethiopia means “black”. The importance of ancient languages like Ge’ez is that they have preserved historical knowledge. If you want to study the ancient history of Ethiopia, what other language do you study if not Ge’ez? And we go to the manuscripts written in Ge’ez found in London, Paris, Rome, Berlin, St. Petersburg or of course in churches here in Ethiopia. The other greatness of the Ge’ez language is its being one of the first languages that adapted the old alphabet. Ge’ez preserves one of the oldest forms of alphabetic writing.

Ethiopia gets recognition among small groups of scholars in the world. Anybody who specializes in Islam, Christianity or Judaism absolutely recognizes the preservation of ancient Biblical versions, and the role Ethiopia played in early development of Christianity. In the circle of top scholarship of ancient history and religion, Ge’ez has a high position. Unfortunately, our own people do not know that. The people who know that are the world’s top scholars of the ancient Biblical religions, of Islam and Judaism.

Herald: Ethiopia is said to be undergoing massive developmental activity. You know the nation for a long time; what is your observation about the impact of development on the life of the people, culture and the like? Is it impacting positively or negatively?

Prof. Ephraim: Ethiopia’s potential for growth and development is immense. Unfortunately, we have not caught up with the modern development. Development is essential as we are living in a word to abolish poverty, disease and hunger. In order to do this, yes we need to move forward. Having said that, how are we doing–we are doing okay, but not perfect. I am very happy about the development, but we need to make it a clean development. And when we develop, we have to be very careful with preserving historical places.

So preserving historical places is very important. And I think development has to be very sensitive. I myself heard that some historical houses were being torn down but I don’t know why because there is enough room to work around Addis Ababa. But this is not only an Ethiopian problem; it is an international problem. In Egypt when the Abu Simbel/Aswan Dam was built, there was an international uproar because a lot of temples and monuments were destroyed. It was a debate in America too. The good thing in America, however, is they have historical preservation societies, which are what we need here in Ethiopia to work together in harmony to create understanding about the importance of preserving historical places.

Herald: You have lectured in big universities abroad. Why don’t you teach classes here to teach the young ones and to share your experience?

Prof. Ephraim: Well, you have to ask the universities; if they invite me, I am glad to come and teach here. In the meantime, I am still teaching because I write about Ethiopia. Last year, I published a book entitled ‘Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church’, which is being sold all over America. I also translated a Book of Enoch into English which is used in universities. Years ago, I translated “The Book of Light”, attributed to Emperor Zera Yakob. And now I am translating the book “Zenahu le Yoseph. Many of my articles are about Ethiopian languages, religions and literature. I have written about Oromo grammatical verbal systems. So, people can learn from me not necessarily by sitting in the class but by reading my writings. Unfortunately, most of my writings are in English, but they can be very easily translated into Ethiopian languages. From time to time, I have been invited by Prof. Pankhurst to give lectures at the Institute of Ethiopian Studies. I gave a lecture in the Ge’ez language when I was invited at Addis Ababa University by Prof. Andreas for an honorary degree while everyone else spoke in English. And last week, the School of Journalism invited me and I gave a two hour lecture. But I love my country and my heart lives here though I live in America.

Herald: There are stories about the maltreatment of Ethiopian Jews in Israel. How would you like to comment on this?

Prof. Ephraim: Overall, the Aliah, the migration of Ethiopian Jews to Israel via Operation Moses and Operation Solomon were positive. And I think the majority of Israeli people accept and love the Ethiopian Jews and their culture. But in every culture, even in our country, there are always people who look differently at others who do not have the same language, culture and colour. And unfortunately, that has been the case in Israel. In other words, the Israeli society as a whole accept and love the Ethiopian Jews; but unfortunately some people, even in the government have been negative; it is based on their ignorance. They are even not well educated themselves of Jewish culture. Those are the ones who discriminate. In every culture, there are these few individuals who are bigoted and I am glad that it is not the whole Israeli society. The blood test was by some very foolish doctors who when they were caught were punished for doing that, as I remember.

Herald: Are there any developments from your centre on the reconciliation between Ethiopia and Eritrea?

Prof. Ephraim: I always work for Ethiopian and Eritrean peace. And I have never gone back and given up on these two people who have the same origin, culture, language, history, same literature and life style. And I am sure the leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea understand that. It is my hope that the eyes of all our leaders will be open and we can resolve the issues on the basis of international understanding. I know the leadership of Ethiopia and I know the leadership of Eritrea; on both sides there is a desire for full reconciliation. We are praying for the ways to bridge the gaps created between these two people. As we know ancient Ethiopia developed around Axum. The Axumite civilization included a good deal of Eritrea. I am optimistic that Ethiopian and Eritrean people will someday hold hands, sing, and dance together.

Herald: Share me your happiest and saddest moments in your life?

Prof. Ephraim: I have always been a happy person. I was happy when I became the President of Ethiopians Students Association in North America in 1959, and for my service there. I was happy when I became chairperson of the National Literacy Campaign of Ethiopia. We taught almost a million and half people– it has always been a highlight of my own happiness in my life. I was happy again when I became the Chair of Ethiopian Peace & Development Centre and the services we gave. I was happy when we tried to help free prisoners. I was happy when we were welcomed by the late Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles and by President Isaias. I am grateful to the late Prime Minister for listening to some of my advices pertaining to overall peace in our country.

When I see conflict among our people, it makes me very sad. And during the Derg period when I saw so many people killed– it was a low point in my life. The famine and the Red Terror, the fighting at that time, was really a bleak period in my life. I am happy that today we have peace and development.


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