US students don’t care about wars that aren’t Gaza says Ethiopian Jewish leader

Former Harvard professor Ephraim Isaac says that Western students ignore conflicts in Africa to solely focus on Gaza


At the annual Sephardic Jewish Film Festival in downtown New York, crowds fill the expansive auditorium for the premiere of a documentary about Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader credited with restoring pride to Sephardim in Israeli society.

Towards the front of the room sits Ephraim Isaac, an 88-year-old Ethiopian-Yemenite Jew and retired Harvard professor, wearing a loose-fitting Ethiopian jalabiya and intricate Yemenite hat, whose own life story warrants a feature-length film.

Isaac is there not just because he is on the board of the American Sephardi Federation, which put together the week-long festival, but because he had met Ovadia Yosef and helped shape his now famous 1973 ruling recognising Ethiopian Jews from the Beta Israel community as halachically Jewish - paving the way for Ethiopian Jews to immigrate to Israel.

Born in Ethiopia in 1936, Isaac speaks 17 languages and holds a BA and Phd from Harvard. In 1969, he helped create Harvard’s Afro-American Studies Department before serving as the faculty’s inaugural professor.

For decades, Isaac has been engaged in global peace efforts, assiduously working to end conflicts in the Middle East, Northern Ireland and Ethiopia. In 2013, he was knighted by the King of Sweden for his “lifetime service to peace and justice.” Nowadays, he lectures worldwide — from Spain and Morocco to Jordan, Scotland and Los Angeles — about religion, peace building and conflict resolution.

“Students must speak out if there’s a deficiency in their academic studies, as they did in 1969,” Isaac tells the JC, recounting the widespread student unrest that engulfed Harvard’s campus in the late 1960s when, in the years following the US civil rights movement, the university failed to offer a single course on African languages, literature or culture. Harvard’s president at the time, Nathan Pusey, eventually conceded to overwhelming student outrage, triggering a surge in courses on African studies being offered across dozens of US colleges and universities.

But times have changed. Isaac laments how many top universities, and its students, had lost their way in recent years, prioritising politics over academic excellence — a trend exacerbated by the events of October 7 and the war in Gaza that followed.

The proliferation of pro-Palestinian solidarity protests across US college campuses over the past few months has been a source of anguish for Isaac who describes himself as a “fanatic peace lover,” adding that “Jews and Arabs are children of Isaac and must stop killing each other. No one benefits from death and destruction.”

However, what irks Isaac – and in light of Juneteenth celebrations taking place this week across America to commemorate the ending of slavery and the country’s second independence day — is the hyper-selective outrage exhibited by many student protesters and the inappropriate politicisation of university administrators.

“Where are these demonstrators when millions of Black people die not only in Ethiopia but also in South Sudan and Sudan, Chad, Mozambique, Somalia, Western Myanmar, where armed conflicts are escalating,?” Isaac asks, sitting in the garden of his Princeton home, donning a hat emblazoned with the words Make America Read Again. “Do African lives not matter for them, or is it antisemitism that motivates them?”

In Ethiopia’s Tigray region alone, more than 600,000 civilians have died in the last three years, with thousands of reported cases of sexual violence on women.

Isaac adds: “Do students on campus who are blowing these trumpets about the Middle East care about Black people and Black blood or is the shouting on campus just political?”

Isaac doesn’t attribute blame for the months-long unrest on college campuses nationwide solely on students. Over the past half a century, he has noticed a sobering trend in academia of universities becoming more politicised and buried in bureaucracy while de-prioritising investments in faculty and quality education.

Under the leadership of Derek Bok, who served as Harvard president from 1971-1991, Isaac recalls the university embarking on a hiring binge of administrators taking on lucrative “vice presidents and assistant vice president” positions, diverting funds away from professors and student scholarships.

“When the university becomes political, students also become political,” he says. “Students need role models and the role models today aren’t always focused on teaching, research and serious study – they are politicised administrators.”

The future is not all bleak, though, Isaac contends. Harvard University’s announcement in late May that it would refrain from making statements on public policy issues unrelated to the university’s institutional functions may be the reset it needs to go back to being a centre of academic excellence, instead of pushing political agendas that polarise — or worse endanger — student populations.

“Students don’t come to university to protest,” Isaac says. “They are not soldiers. They should be at these institutions to learn.”

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