“Do you think in America they know what’s going on here?” Musa Hadid, the mayor of Ramallah, turns away from the windows in his office to ask the question of David Osit, the director of the documentary Mayor (2020; available via various streaming services). Whether or not other people see the complexity in the situation between Palestinians and Israelis, I would have to answer no, I did not know what is going on from the perspective of Palestinians. While I know that many Palestinians are Christians, when the situation is framed in the United States, it seems to be a conflict solely between Palestinian Muslims and Israeli Jews.
The relationships, both historical and current, between Palestinians and the modern state of Israel are far more complicated than I (and, I would guess, most Americans) would be able to summarize neatly. The difficulty of defining borders which have been under the control of more than one historical empire is tangled further by international interests and mandates regarding the status of Israel.
The fact that the United States is a close ally of Israel often appears (to many Americans, at least) to make Israel the default victim in the constant flare-ups of violence, as well as the assumed moral superior. Further, the lines of argument (if they even rise to that level) between and among Americans easily split along partisan lines, with those on the political right supporting Israel, and those on the political left supporting Palestine. Nuance and complexity, it hardly needs to be stated, are unknown qualities when it comes to the way these sorts of quarrels play out on social media or in the comments sections of “news” reports.
Mayor provides a perspective that ought to make us question the simplistic, binary nature of our own political disagreements over Middle Eastern conflicts. More importantly for American Christians (especially those who have an iron-clad allegiance to Israel for religious and apocalyptic reasons), what do we do with the fact that the Christians in the region are, as far as I can tell, almost completely Palestinian? In Palestine, while remaining a small percentage of the population, there are 30,000 to 50,000 Christians, primarily in the West Bank. According to Israel’s census information (if Google Translate is to be trusted), in 2020 Christians made up 2 percent of the population in Israel, which is around 180,000 people, but most of these identify themselves as Palestinian. Many Christians have left the region completely, with the Israeli control of the land being a significant reason for their emigration, along with conflict between Israel and Palestinians.
Ramallah, where Musa Hadid is the mayor, has a significant population of Christians. They light a Christmas tree (and have rappelling Santas and sing “Jingle Bells”!). They have Easter processions through the streets, and at least one church steeple is prominent in the city. There is one shot that frames both a steeple with a cross and the spire of a mosque with a crescent on it. At another moment, we hear church bells ringing at the same time as the Muslim call to prayer. In this context, Hadid drives around the city putting out various fires, sometimes literally.
But we never see the mayor mediating conflicts between Christians and Muslims in his city. (He declines to answer a child’s question about which Palestinian Muslim faction he supports.) The primary conflict throughout the film is between Israel and the Palestinians. In his speeches and discussions with other leaders and in other countries, he repeatedly emphasizes the difficulties of being mayor of a city that does not have an independent country: for example, in Ramallah they are not able to build a sewage treatment plant without Israel’s permission, and Israel seems unwilling to give such permission. Another of Ramallah’s leaders tells German visitors that it took 15 years to gain Israeli permission to create a cemetery. That conflict is not lessened by President Trump’s decision to move the United States embassy to Jerusalem, which had deleterious effects on Palestinians, including Palestinian Christians.
I don’t know enough about the various dynamics to say anything about the borders of Israel and the Israeli settlements encroaching further and further into Palestinian cities. Since Palestine is not officially a separate nation, but a collection of territories divided into three areas more or less autonomous from Israel, it is hard for me as a foreigner to see the issues clearly. The documentary, while presenting Hadid’s perspective, does not allow for easy answers or solutions.
The water fountain in front of the Ramallah city hall stands in as a metaphor for Hadid’s (and Palestine’s) difficulties. He is shown more than once looking out at the fountain, planning music to go with it, and waiting to see its colors in the dark. The park that surrounds it has no official name, so, one official says, people will just call it whatever they want. (In a related issue, the film begins with a discussion about Ramallah’s “branding.” The conclusion seems as unclear as Palestine’s status.) Sometimes the fountain works the way it’s supposed to, and other times it’s not quite right. It is damaged by rocks thrown at retreating Israeli soldiers. One of the songs we hear clearly is Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On.” But the fictional source of that song might cause a little doubt about the certainty of the sentiment, particularly as it applies to the ongoing existence of Palestinians in Area C (the area most completely under Israeli control).
At the very least, American Christians should not be drawn into simplistic political arguments about which “side” is right and which is wrong in a long-disputed territory. Mayor caused me to reconsider my own unexamined assumptions about the status of the land called Israel and Palestine. More than that, it demonstrates that, for Christians, we have no straight line to follow between American foreign policy and how American Christians should think about a foreign conflict. The political and religious lines run at odd angles to each other. They are never merely coincident or even parallel, but cross and re-cross in ways that ought to remind us that our political opinions as Americans can never be identified with our religious convictions and the Christian confession. Perhaps we can learn from our Palestinian Christian brothers and sisters about how to live in a world where we have no lasting home.