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November 22, 2014

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Ethiopian blesses peacemakers, extols virtues of ancient culture

The United States may be a world leader in science and technology, but it can learn a lot about forgiveness and humility from Ethiopia's ancient culture.

That challenge came Thursday from Ephraim Isaac, a retired Harvard professor from Ethiopia who reflected on the art of negotiating settlements between strident opponents during a visit to Las Vegas.

Peacemakers are nurtured by a culture such as his, he said in an interview before addressing a gathering of the National Association of Black Journalists.

Last month Isaac, heading a council of elders, won freedom for 38 opposition party members who had been sentenced to life in prison for inciting 2005 election protests that threatened to violently overthrow the Ethiopian government.

The efforts of Isaac, 70, and his group demonstrated that even in a country torn by political strife, reasonable men can reach common ground through mediation and compromise.

Although Americans may struggle finding Ethiopia on a map, the resolution to avoid a civil war was important to the United States because Ethiopia is an ally in the Bush administration's war on terror.

But even a dedicated peacemaker such as Isaac admits that achieving similar success on issues such as the war on terror will be very difficult.

"While the West is far more advanced technologically, we (Ethiopians) are much more advanced culturally," said Isaac, wearing a traditional white cotton tunic called a shemma. "Things that are important to us are mutual respect and love, forgiveness, patience and humility."

Isaac, the longtime director of the Institute of Semitic Studies in Princeton, N.J., said that without those characteristics in his culture, his group of private citizens never could have convinced Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to release the dissidents.

Use of a council of elders dates back centuries in Ethiopia. It holds virtually no judicial powers, yet has had a good track record settling things such as family disputes and unpaid loans, Isaac said.

The efforts to release the opposition party members from prison was on a much higher scale, as Isaac and his team of 25 elders, including famed Ethiopian distance runner Haile Gebrselassie, spent 20 months trying to reach an equitable resolution.

Isaac made several 20-hour plane trips from his home in New Jersey to Ethiopia, going between Zenawi and jailed opposition leaders.

In a compromise worthy of the wisdom of Solomon, the opposition leaders were freed and allowed to return to politics in exchange for signing an apology and taking responsibility for actions that led to the postelection violence.

Isaac said he believes both sides will keep their word, for that, too is part of their culture.

Applying the council of elders' methods to resolve something like the Iraqi war is a far greater challenge, Isaac admits.

"In Ethiopia both sides were of the same culture that practices forgiveness and reconciliation," said Isaac, who speaks 17 languages and lectures around the world on issues such as peace and religion.

"With the United States and Iraq you have two opposing cultures."

Still, if Isaac and his team were brought in to settle that dispute, he said they would start with efforts to ensure that children on both sides were being taught understanding and not hatred.

Next, the father of three and grandfather of one said he would encourage Muslims to read the Bible and Christians to read the Quran to help both sides understand each other.

"Unfortunately it is a long process and will take a lot of education," Isaac said. "But I am an optimist. Why not start now? Why wait until the end of the world when it is too late?"

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