What’s Mine and Not Yours: Enclosure Inflicted by the US and Israel

Image of Israel wall.

Image by Snowscat.

The nature of Enclosure is not often associated with the settler-colonial societies of the US and Israel. Yet it is an important aspect to the self- expressed exceptionalism of both these states and their righteous sectioning off of land for their own religious aims. Both states got their foothold on the ladder of Enclosure, hence prosperity, from the British and both held up the bible as proof of their claims.

Where did aspects of the English idea and justification of laying claim to other people’s land come from and who is paying the price? Enclosure has its part to play in the history of how fundamentalist Christian Americans and Israeli Zionists justify settler-colonial societies. Israel is very much in the spotlight of late due to their ongoing occupation of Palestinian land and Palestinians. To understand the current situation one needs to understand past.

Gary Field’s book, Enclosure, places partial responsibility for Occupation on John Locke’s theory of 1690’s – a theory that was somewhat based on the claim in Genesis that land tilled is the only land that is rightfully claimed in the eyes of God and therefore the only land that will be blessed by God. Indigenous people of the time did not have the same view of the biblical interpretation of land tilled, yet that was ignored by those who wished to righteously claim land that looked worthy of possession and profit. Hebrews 6:7 reads, ‘Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God’. This gave Enclosure an air of legitimacy and godliness.

This theory of land and property rights has been the legal basis of land obtained by dubious means in many cases throughout history. Gary Field encapsulates the nature of this process; “…by enclosing land and cultivating the earth in the enclosed area, the individual draws a boundary on an otherwise open landscape and with this boundary creates what lies at the core of property: the idea of exclusion expressed as mine and yours”. The ‘yours’ in this biased equation had no say in whether they agreed with Locke’s thinking.

From the early days of the English Protestants landing on the shores of America, it was believed that a place needed to be carved out in order to live their interpretation of the Puritan lifestyle and austere worship of their white Christian God. These ‘uncivilised lands’ were to be conquered and ultimately cordoned off from those whom the English had taken it from. Enclosure was a law they had learnt back in England, and it was going to be the new law in the new land – at the point of a gun if necessary. And so they commenced their ‘imaginative geography’, to reference Edward Said’s work in Orientalism.

The early Puritan leader, John Winthrop, was part of the Massachusetts Bay Company which provided a charter and consent for an “extraordinary experiment in godly self-government” (Winship). He believed they were “consciously modelling themselves on the ancient Israelites”. Winthrop suggested that the New England Puritans were “like the Jews – as like as like can be” (Clark). One may well be curious as to why this sounds familiar.

The remodelling of Palestine was first given the green light by England, yet again causing immense grief to indigenous people. It wasn’t enough that the British government had metaphorically trodden over the heads of Native Americans in 1600’s but were at it again three hundred years later by signing the Balfour Declaration of 1917; thereby condemning the Palestinians to another instance of British led settler-colonisation. (The British had been busy in the meantime, as they crushed much of the First Nations People in Australia and wreaked havoc across the African continent and numerous Caribbean islands). The Balfour Declaration gave European Jews the head start in the steady dismantling of Palestine which morphed into the State of Israel by 1948. The cordoning off of the Palestinian Territories of the West Bank and Gaza is surely one of the biggest Enclosures of the last 300 years – with barbed wire, guns and checkpoints. The early English colonial settlers in the US built forts to protect themselves from the inhabitants who resisted the taking of their land. Israel built a wall. The Enclosure of the West Bank and Gaza (in particular) has been described as the world’s largest open-air prison.

Parallels have been drawn in Amy Kaplan’s book, Our American Israel, between Mayflower Pilgrims and Jewish pioneers in the familiar landscape of the envisaged biblical Promised Land. How else could America conduct itself towards Israel’s settler-colonial machinations? It would be hypocritical of the US to object to the European Jewish biblical claim to someone else’s land when their very foundations were so similar. Both Israel and the United States share the noble myth of a land carved out with their bare hands, moving towards their manifest destiny. The similarities of a shared history of land acquisition, bloody foundations and fundamentalist religion are extraordinary. As Noam Chomsky said, “…the strongest support for Israel in the international arena comes from the United States, Canada and Australia…settler-colonial societies based on extermination or expulsion of indigenous populations in favour of a higher race…”.

Religious based claims to geographical locations have a lot to answer for. Not only because their claims are not necessarily believed by millions of other people, but because these claims inflict subjugation and dispossession on those who attempt to resist. The bible does not contain title deeds, it is a set of beliefs and creeds for the select few who choose to hold it up as a set of irrefutable laws that all must obey and respect – including those who are dispossessed and subjugated by such claims.

Presumably Native Americans and First Nations People were not going to be blessed by the white man’s God and his word in Genesis which they had no prior knowledge of yet were able to live sustainably for centuries without so much as a rusty hoe to till their land. Palestinians were living a pleasing existence until their land was consumed before their very eyes. The troubling result of enforced Enclosure means that anyone coming onto your claimed land is a trespasser and therefore defending your ill-gotten gains becomes well within your rights. Britain grew fat and rich on the colonisation and dispossession of the ‘other’ in India, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Jamaica, Australia et al. Yet they now have washed their hands of making any concrete attempts to settle the on-going Occupation of a wretched people, the Palestinians, who have suffered from Enclosure for over 75 years.

Reb Halabi is a PhD candidate focusing on the intersection of religion and geopolitics.