Ephraim Isaac

Ephraim Isaac is a scholar of ancient Semitic Languages & Civilization, and African/Ethiopian Languages and Religion. He is the Director of the Institute of Semitic Studies and the Chair of the Board of the Ethiopian Peace and Development Center.
Dr. Isaac holds B Div. ; a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages ; a D.H.L. ; a Litt. D.. He is a founder, and the first Professor of Afro-American Studies at Harvard University. In recognition of his merits, the "Ephraim Isaac Prize for Excellence in African Languages" is given to a Harvard graduate who writes the best essay in African Studies.

Early life

Isaac was born to an Ethiopian Oromo mother and a Yemeni Jewish father in Ethiopia in 1936. His actual date of birth is unknown. In high school, he randomly chose May 29 as his nominal birthday. He received his early education in Ethiopia.


As a scholar, Ephraim Isaac has been a professor at various universities and has published scholarly articles and books. He was the first faculty appointment in Harvard University's Department of African and Afro-American Studies in 1969, and he played an important role in the early history of the Department. Committed to this emerging field of scholarship, Isaac continued as a faculty member until 1977 and taught almost half of the students enrolled in the program during that time period.
Dr. Isaac has also lectured at following institutions of higher learning :
His subjects range from those mentioned above to Biblical Hebrew, Rabbinic Literature, Ethiopian History, Concept and History of Slavery and Ancient African Civilizations. He was a Fellow at the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute for Advanced Studies. He has been a Fellow, Harvard University, Dubois Institute ; Fellow Center for Theological Inquiry, Princeton.
Dr. Isaac had a long-running dispute with the President of Harvard regarding the denial of his strong nomination for tenure by the then Department of African American Studies Department. After several appeals by the President of Harvard to drop the charges, Isaac won a major victory ruled in his favor by the three justices of the United States First Court of Appeals, for the First Circuit, Boston that rejected the President’s appeal, after which the President of Harvard proposed to settle the case out of court, offering Isaac a Fellowship position and paying all his legal fees.

Peace contributions and activities


As a peace activist, Isaac made important contributions to areas of peace and reconciliation. He founded the ad hoc Peace Committee for peace and reconciliation among all Ethiopian conflicting parties at a critical stage in Ethiopian history in 1989. The Committee- a dozen Ethiopian elders facilitated several bilateral negotiations between the then Government and all conflicting parties at home and abroad. This created a forum of dialogue for a peaceful resolution to the violence and bloody conflict. The Committee contributed to accelerate the end of the 30-year Horn of Africa civil war and resolution of conflicts in July 1991. In July 1991, the Committee also helped raise funds to defray the cost of the Addis Ababa Conference for a Peaceful and Democratic Transition when the 30-year civil war and conflicts formally ended. A Transitional Government of Ethiopia was formed, and a Transitional Council that later became the Parliament of Ethiopia. He participated in the Conference as an observer along with representatives of the international diplomatic, community, and religious leaders, and gave one of the three concluding goodwill addresses. In 1992, he organized, with the help of two of his fellow elders, Dr. Haile Sellasie Belay and Dr. Tilahun Beyene, a night of international elders teleconference of religious reconciliation – with participation of eight conflicting Ethiopian Archbishops and several religious leaders, that resulted in the resolution of the serious religious dispute and conflict that arose among the Archbishops of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tawãhedo Church regarding church administration and appointment of a Patriarch.
Between 1998 and 2000, he led an Ethio-Eritrean peace delegation to Ethiopia and Eritrea during the tragic war between the two. This delegation was the only group from the region that both sides found acceptable or welcome. From 2007, he has promoted reconciliation and repatriation of several Ethiopian and Somali liberation front movements in exile. In 2007, he negotiated the release of 30 Ethiopian political leaders and members of parliament. Subsequently, since 2007 to date, Isaac has also negotiated the release of about 35, 000 prisoners and has helped with organizing inter-political party dialogues and an Election Board, national police chiefs and Justices seminars. This was done in cooperation with the New York John Jay College of Criminal Justice and other experts, and an interfaith symposium to promote the value of democratic and human rights to strengthen peace and reconciliation efforts. In 2009, he was actively engaged behind the scenes in the Ethiopian Government treaty with a major branch of the Ogaden National Liberation Front. He was involved in the release of two kidnapped Germans and the release of two Swedish journalists from jail. He continues his peace and reconciliation work tirelessly but quietly avoiding publicity.


Isaac is currently the international Chair of the Horn of Africa Board of Peace and Development Organization and the former president of The Yemenite Jewish Federation of America. He founded, and was Chair of the Committee for Ethiopian Literacy, the first African/Ethiopian Federal tax-exempt organization: the National Literacy Campaign of Ethiopia, for which he was Executive Director from 1967 to 1974, that made millions literate in the late sixties. In 1959, he organized the founding meeting of the Ethiopian Students Association in North America in Chicago, becoming the first President of the organization.
He is on editorial boards of two international scholarly journals: Journal of Afroasiatic Languages and Second Temple Jewish Literature. Dr. Isaac is a member of the board or advisory council of several interfaith and intercultural groups and organizations, nationally and internationally. These include the Temple of Understanding, the Institute of Religion and Public Policy, Tanenbaum Center for Inter-religious Understanding, Princeton Fellowship in Prayer, Institute for Jewish Community Research, and Oxford Forum. In this capacity, Isaac has contributed to numerous peace and reconciliation dialogues in the Middle East, Africa and Ireland.
In the 80’s he was an active member of the Harvard-Radcliffe Alumni Association against Apartheid. He was nominated twice to the Harvard University Board of Overseers on an Anti-apartheid slate along with fifteen other distinguished Harvard alumni, including those who struggled against South African Apartheid and Archbishop Tutu. In 1993 he was a signatory to the groundbreaking Document Toward a Global Ethic along with the Dalai Lama, the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago, and others, as a Jewish delegate to the Parliament of World’s Religions and a member of the about 150 Assembly of Religious and Spiritual Leaders. He was the first to propose in October 1993 to the Parliament the idea of a “united nations” of world religions to promote world peace and prosperity. Between 1994-2005, he was an active member of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy at the height of their involvement with the Northern Ireland peace process. In 2004 he contributed to peace meetings as a member of the peace delegation of Peacemakers in Action of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, sponsored by Prince Hassan Ibn Talal with the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding. In 2005 Isaac also contributed to other peace-building symposia among the three followers of the Religion of Abraham who have roots in Arabic culture as President of the Yemenite Federation of America, sponsored by the Government of Jordan and the Interfaith Council of Jordan.
In 2005 and 2006 he served twice as a delegate to the two major peace-building symposia of Imams and Rabbis sponsored by the Kings of Morocco, Belgium, and Spain, and the French organization Hommes de Parole. In June 2006 Isaac gave a keynote talk to the international congress of conflict resolution experts sponsored by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway and Geneva Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue. In 2007 he participated and contributed to a peace-building symposium among followers of the three Abrahamic Religions in Bosnia Herzegovina, as a member of the peace delegation of Peacemakers in Action of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding. In 2009, Israel and the Palestinian Authority, was a member of the peace delegation of distinguished jurists, diplomats, scholars, and religious leaders led by Cardinal McCarrick and Ambassador Tony Hall to Israel and Palestinian Authority. In 2010 Isaac co-sponsored with Princeton University, a dialogue on Yemen: Jews & Moslems - The Shared Cultural Heritage, with the hope of continuing to promote the peace dialogue between Jews and Moslems. And in 2010 Isaac gave a talk on traditional peace activism, and Judaism as a member of a peace delegation at a meeting of Jews, Christians, and Iranian Ayatollahs, sponsored by PRIA Norwegian peace institute and the Catholic University of America.


His work has been featured in several front-page stories, including three in the New York Times, three in the Trenton "Times" and The Record, and one editorial in the Washington Post. Other stories about his work have also appeared in the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, Christian Science Monitor, The Jerusalem Post, Shalom-European Jewish Times, The Jewish Week, the Baltimore Jewish Times, numerous Ethiopian radio, television, and newspaper reports, and many other local and national papers throughout the United States of America, and the BBC.

Recognitions and awards