The Doctrine of Discovery

The Doctrine of Discovery, based in a Papal bull of 1493 and the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494, was used throughout the colonial imperialist period to justify the ownership of lands by whatever Christian government’s representatives first set foot on them to claim them, so long as they were previously not occupied by any people subject to a European Christian monarch.

The doctrine’s utility does not appear to have required that such a government be specifically pledged to Christianity nor to have a monarchical governing power, as it was extended. In 1792, as Secretary of State for the United States of America, Thomas Jefferson declared the Doctrine would apply to his newly founded nation as it had to European powers.

The United States Supreme Court agreed that the doctrine justified USAmerican settler colonialist taking of land from indigenous peoples, who were recognized as occupants rather than holders of the land, if and when they were recognized as human. Typically, indigenous occupants of lands subject to such European or settler discovery were regarded as subhuman, savage, or barbarian.

Chief Justice John Marshall wrote for a unanimous Supreme Court in Johnson vs. M’Intosh to the effect that land titles obtained from Native Americans should not be recognized by U.S. courts. Marshall himself had considerable real estate holdings that would have been affected if the case at hand had been decided otherwise. In other cases, the Court also used the Doctrine to justify “the concept that tribes were not independent states but ‘domestic dependent nations’” and to prohibit any tribe from legally prosecuting anyone not a member of that specific tribe.

Despite recent decisions to repudiate the Doctrine by the United Nations Economic and Social Council Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues’ and several prominent U.S. churches, it remains foundational in the establishment and continuity of legal and property rights in the U.S. and has never been disavowed or overturned by the U.S. government.

In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the state of Israel appears to re-enact this principle in its relations with the Palestinian peoples (including Christian Palestinians), compounding its methodology with the principle of the right of return of the Jewish peoples, stemming primarily from Europe and the United States. The lack of a formal Palestinian state formation prior to the development of Zionist settlement following the break-up of the Ottoman empire in the first World War has been drawn on to support the premise that there never was a Palestine, nor a Palestinian people.

Those native to lands intended for settlement or appropriation, whether still now subject to military occupation or actively colonized by Jewish communities with state support, are typically regarded by high officers of the Jewish state as, without exception, nothing but terrorists, non-existent, or less than fully human. Palestinians employed as workers in cities and towns in Israel are subject to strict conditions that disempower the labor force and contribute to instability and vulnerability of working Palestinians. Human rights as recognized by Israel and other democratic states as essential to the protection of citizens are not acknowledged as pertinent to Palestinians in Israel or its occupied territories.

The Israeli state’s methods of dislodging, degrading, terrorizing, evacuating, and restricting a great many diverse rights of the Palestinian population sustain a process of gradual genocide. This process closely resembles the management of relations with the indigenous peoples of territories the United States has chosen to colonize, settle, and lay claim to and govern, often in violation of treaties previously established with various tribal authorities.

The imperialist conquests and the violent and oppressive impositions of colonial power they reputedly validated continue to be enacted in Palestine and elsewhere, despite consequences easily identified as catastrophic and profoundly inhumane, except by those who do not regard the indigenous in fellowship as sentient, intelligent human beings.

To this day, religion is in many cases cited as authority for one power’s or people’s superiority of authority and rights over another. (The secular faith in an “invisible hand” of commercial markets, wiser than any state or person, appears to have evolved into playing such a role on demand in some instances, in support of state or corporate powers over the indigenous people of a region.)

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