Bruce Feiler, author of "Walking the Bible," and most recently, "Where God Was Born," talks to Beliefnet senior editor Alice Chasan about the biblical and historical significance of the lands comprising the occupied territories, where Israeli settlements were dismantled in August 2005 as part of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement policy.

In the latest phase of the disengagement plan of Ariel Sharon's government, Israeli soldiers and police evacuated Jewish settlements in the West Bank. They anticipated the greatest degree of resistance in those communities. Why is the West Bank so steeped in significance for religious Jews?

Beginning somewhere around 2,000 BCE, the Bible says that God promised a piece of land to Abraham. And that begins the story of the Israelites and their attachment to territory between the Euphrates in modern-day Turkey and the Nile in Egypt.

So most of the next 2,000 years of Israel's history takes place in this landscape. The places that are-the earliest places mentioned in the book of Genesis are Shechem in modern-day Nablus, Beth El, which is north of Jerusalem, Hebron, which is south of Jerusalem, and Beersheba. These are places that have deep emotional significance to lovers of the Bible. They are today-jumping forward 4,000 years in history-in the West Bank.

And the big defining question in Middle Eastern politics in the past 50 years is what land will the Jews occupy, and what land will the Muslims occupy? The Jewish claim to the land comes from the Bible but also historical attachment that Jews have had to this land for thousands of years. The Palestinians have countered that they were there before the Israelites got there.

Most of the time, this issue is viewed through the lens of geography, but I think it should additionally be viewed through the prism of religion. Who gets to control the argument. Is it religious moderates, or the religious extremists?

Gaza has a different biblical and historical status within Judaism. Can you describe it?

Gaza is historically very important in that part of the world. It main road of that world, the sea road, ran from Cairo to Damascus, right through Gaza. But Gaza is not particularly important in the Bible. It's mentioned [as Azzah, a city of the Philistines] only in passing in the first five books [which Jews call the Torah], in Deuteronomy. It's mentioned in Joshua, saying that Joshua never controls Gaza [it is described as a city he could not subdue]. Then [King] David never controls Gaza. So if you make a list of the 50, 100 places of most significance in the Bible, Gaza would not be on that list.

What if the Palestinians were there first?
Read more on page 2 >>

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  • The covenantal bargain between God and the people of Israel as interpreted by modern religious nationalists includes the whole land of what they call "greater Israel." How did they come to define it? Simply everything between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River?

    Every time that God promises land to Abraham and his descendents in the biblical text, the geographical boundaries are delineated slightly differently. At its broadest point, it goes all the way from the Euphrates to the Nile, across the Jordan, into contemporary Jordan. You can find, in Israel, a small number of people who would like to claim the entire land. There are Israelis who are buying up land in Turkey. There are Israelis who are trying to stake claims to territory in Jordan. There are certainly Israelis who still believe that Israel should never have given up the Sinai [taken in the 1967 war and returned to Egypt in 1982].

    You can find people who still dream of "greater Israel" being the entire territory between the Euphrates and the Nile. Clearly the majority of Israelis have decided that giving up Gaza is in the strategic best interest of the country. And the issue of the West Bank is where this battle is going next.

    The Bible is one piece of this equation, but so is contemporary reality.

    In the United States, we're quite familiar with literal interpretations of the biblical text, on Scripture. There is a great number of Christians who support the rejectionist perspective of the right-wing, ultra-nationalist Jewish religious groups in Israel. How would you explain the Christian Zionist view that not one inch of the land should be relinquished by the Jews?

    I think the question is what is the prism through which you view the story. For a certain population of Christians who believe in the literal word of truth of the Bible, the second coming of the messiah is dependent on Jews being in control of the land of Israel. So there is a very complicated coalition between fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist Jews. Since 9/11, when Jewish tourism to Israel suffered, one of the backbones of tourism to Israel has been Christian groups, not only from the United States, but from Europe.

    This is a very complicated bargain that a lot of Israeli have made, because support for contemporary Israel-in the long term, the Christians believe that the Jews, if they do not accept Jesus, will not be invited into the aftertime to come.

    One challenge that this worldview has in light of contemporary reality is that even the base text for this idea, which is the Bible, which says that God promised the land to Abraham, says that the land was occupied at the time that the Israelites got there, by the Canaanites. And what's happened recently is that the Palestinians say, "Guess what? We are the descendents of the Canaanites. We were here first." It shows that while the Bible can never be fully be removed from this equation, that relying on the Bible as the final arbiter of geographic boundaries is problematic.

    How will the religious understanding of the change of the geographic boundaries get filtered into the political discourse in Israel? To what extent does the alternation of the covenantal promise affect what the Israel's political right and left are saying to each other at the moment?

    I've been in Israel once a month for the past year, working on my new book, "Where God Was Born," in which I retrace the story of the Bible through David and Solomon through Joshua, and the number one phrase in every newspaper and in every conversation was "civil war." And this question was on the lips of everybody: Will there be a civil war between secular Israelis, moderate believers, and fundamentalist believers?

    And I think that the headline coming out of [the disengagement from] Gaza is that the moderates have stood up to the extremists and said, "Seven thousand extreme nationalists are not going to hold the 50-year-old state of Israel hostage any longer." This was ultimately a very painful but a very clear-cut decision that a vast majority of Israelis made.

    Many of the settlers' rabbis had promised a miracle at the eleventh hour to reverse the disengagement process. Does the fact that no miracle was forthcoming constitute a crisis of faith for the religious nationalists in Israel?

    No. Jewish identity is built, in part, on the years of suffering that have befallen the Jews in many different places. This was at the hands of Jews, so there was the idea that it would somehow be more cataclysmic, but again, you're talking about an extremely small number of the most radical fundamentalists, and that is not where the heart of the faith, or Jewish identity, is. I feel very deeply that Judaism should step away from the negative reinforcement that has defined Jewish identity for centuries, and certainly for the last 50 years, which is Jews must stick together because we were almost wiped out in the Holocaust, and the state of Israel is imperiled.

    I think that Judaism has a very positive message to give to the world, and that is we are experienced at being a minority faith and we have shown that we can coexist alongside other faiths. And in the time in the world where the call of the new century is finding a way for the religions to live side-by-side without killing one another, Jews have a deeply affirmative message to give in that regard. And that is the story of Gaza. It shows that the faith is strong enough to stand up and say, Judaism is not dependent on a few square miles of sand. It lives in the hearts and in the tradition, and in our ability to be strong enough to survive in sometimes difficult circumstances.

    Go back and read the Bible. God promises the land to Abraham, but then God in the 6th century, with Nebuchadnezzar, rips the Israelites from the land and sends them off into exile. And they didn't collapse and die at that point. They did the greatest thing in human history: They invented Judaism. It was invented when they were off the land, and God says that living on the land is not the most important thing. The most important thing is living in proximity to the divine. And you can do that on the land, or off the land. That is the overwhelming message of the Bible, and that is what the theme of my new book is: Identity is not connected to soil. It is connected to your relationship with God.

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