Looking at Zion

A Jewish Perspective on Israel-Diaspora relationship: 235 members of Jewish communities around the globe answered a questionnaire, which asked them to articulate their thoughts and feelings towards Israel

Professor Ephraim Isaac

Prof. Ephraim Isaac, World known Scholar of ancient Semitic Languages & Civilization, Princeton, NJ, U.S

“The problem that most Jews in and out of Israel suffer from is ignorance. When Jews in and out of Israel look at Ethiopian Jews and say – ‘you do not look Jewish’, they are ignorant.”

The Interviewee – Professor Ephraim Isaac, BA; BD; Ph.D.; D.H.L. (hon.); Litt. D (hon.). An Ethiopian Jew, Dr. Isaac holds B.A. in Philosophy, Chemistry, & Music; B.D. (Harvard Divinity School); Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages (Harvard University.) The first Professor hired in Harvard’s Afro-American Studies Department.

Director of the Institute of Semitic Studies (Princeton, New Jersey) founder and international Chairman of the Board of the Ethiopian Peace and Development Center. He was decorated/knighted by His Majesty the King of Sweden as Order of the Polar Star, First Class for “Lifetime service to Peace and Justice.” 

In your opinion, what importance, if any, does the existence of a Jewish state have to you personally and to Jewish people in general?

“Ethiopian and Yemenite Jews to whom I am connected all their lives prayed daily for the return of the Jewish people to Zion. Their hearts and minds lived in the Land of Israel, so to say. The Jewish people have no other homeland except Erets Israel.”

Do you feel committed in some way to defend the future existence of Israel?

“Of course. Israel must exist for ever and be defended. But we have to find a way to solve the present conflict with its Arab and other nationalities and live in peace with all. ‘Peace’ is the ultimate guarantee for the eternal existence of Israel.”

Do you affiliate yourself with a specific denomination in Judaism? What is your view regarding the dominance of the Orthodox denomination in Israel religious establishment?

“Yes I affiliate with the Ancient Judaism as preserved by the Yemenite Jews. You can describe it as Orthodox. But for me A Jew is a Jew- not Orthodox (a word borrowed in modern times from Christianity), not Conservative, not Reform (words made up since the 19th century.) But certainly there are certain norms of Jewish religion and conduct- it is “Orthopraxi” not “Orthocredo”.When people ask me if I am ‘dati’, I say: yes, but not ‘fanati’. Fanaticism has no place in Judaism. I think Jews should read and re-read the Prophets as well as the Oral literature, Then the ‘Orthodox’ will be less fanatic and the Reform will be less hateful of the Orthodox. So, let us dialogue…”

Do you feel morally responsible for Israel’s actions (such as its management of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict)?

“I live a abroad now. So, it is not fair for me to judge the conduct of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, Jews and Palestinians (many of whom probably descend from ancient Jews) must find a way for mutually acceptable and respectful co-existence. Violence in the Name of ‘Ha-Shem’ is ‘hilul Ha-Shem’ and never resolves the core problems. We need more long-lasting cultural, religious, and even linguistic dialogue between the two for long lasting co-existence.”

In your opinion, what is the main thing Israelis fail to understand about the reality of being Jewish outside of Israel?

“Most Jews in and outside of Israel are illiterate in terms of Jewish religion and civilization. Since ancient times, Jews have lived in and out of the Eretz Israel. The Great Babylonian Talmud was a product from the Fertile Crescent. So are many other important Jewish literary works. Moreover, most Jewish Hebrew and Aramaic works were preserved in Yemen, Persia, Spain, Italy, Germany, and so on.

“The problem that most Jews in and out of Israel suffer from is ignorance. When Jews in and out of Israel look at Ethiopian Jews and say (as I have heard many times) ‘you do not look Jewish’, they are ignorant. The Mishnah – Negaim in fact described a Jew as more or less brown like the Ethiopians and Yemenites. When even an Israel university professor asks me (as it happened a couple times when I was in Israel) what are the Ethiopian languages related to, such ignorance is very telling, for indeed Ethiopia is now regarded as the home of Proto-semitic which is a branch of Afroasiatic that developed in ancient Ethiopian regions about 10 thousand years ago. So, better education is the solution for Jewish humble mutual respect and love.”

How would you describe Israel’s policy (formally and in practice) regarding its relationship with the Diaspora?

“It is not perfect, but it seems to me fine. Indeed, from its very foundation, Israel has depended on the international Jewish support for the support of many of its social, health, and welfare activities. ”

In your opinion, does Israel have an obligation to defend and help Jewish communities in need?

“Absolutely. Is that not the primary or very purpose of the creation and existence of the Israeli state?”

Have you ever been to Israel? if you have, can you summarize your impression from the Israeli reality?

“Since my first visit in Israel in 1960 after I finished college, I have been to Israel about 72 times for one or two weeks or a few days for conferences, lectures, and family visits. Moreover, I have been in Israel as a research student in Spring 1967 and was there during the Six-Days War; I arrived in Israel Erev Yom Kippur 1973 (and shared the anguish of the Yom Kippur War) to be a one-year Visiting Professor in 1973-74 in the Department of Ancient Semitic Languages of Hebrew University; and lived in Israel in 1977-1979 for two years again as a Visiting Professor at Hebrew University- Department of Religion and African studies— saw President Sadat when he arrived in Israel. I was in Israel in summer of 1985 as a shalich of Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to study the absorption of the Ethiopian Jews who arrived on Operation Moses. I was in Israel this year for the conference of the Israeli Society for the Study of Ethiopian Jews for which I am the Honorary President. And so on and do forth…”

Can you tell us a bit about the Jewish community in your hometown? Is it organized? Are there community activities?

“I live in Princeton where my children have been active at the Jewish Center. I myself travel to New York to attend services at the Yemenite Jewish synagogues. I am President Emeritus of the Yemenite Jewish Federation of America (most members are Israelis) ) that I served for a decade.”

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