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Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood responds to criticism of his collaboration with Israeli musicians

Jonny Greenwood, of the band The Smile, performs on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022, at the Riviera Theatre in Chicago
Jonny Greenwood, of the band The Smile, performs on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022, at the Riviera Theatre in Chicago Copyright AP Photo
Copyright AP Photo
By Jonny Walfisz
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The pro-Palestinian BDS movement has criticised the Radiohead guitarist for his collaboration with Israeli musician of Kuwait origin Dudu Tassa.

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Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood has responded to backlash over his collaboration with Israeli musicians. The English guitarist and composer has defended his choice to continue a European tour with Dudu Tassa and the Kuwaitis, against calls for its cancellation from Palestine supporters.

Greenwood has been criticised by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement for his involvement with Israeli musicians and performing at a concert in Israel.

“We call for peaceful, creative pressure on @radiohead to convincingly distance itself from this blatant complicity in the crime of crimes, or face grassroots measures,” a post by BDS read.

In light of news that Greenwood was going ahead with a number of European tour dates with Dudu Tassa and the Kuwaitis, the guitarist released a statement on X to clarify his position.

“I’ve been collaborating with Dudu and releasing music with him since 2008 – and working privately long before that,” the Radiohead musician explained. “I think an artistic project that combines Arab and Jewish musicians is worthwhile. And one that reminds everyone that the Jewish cultural roots in countries like Iraq and Yemen go back for thousands of years, is also important.”

Dudu Tassa is a Jewish Israel-born musician whose family comes from Yemen, Iraq and Kuwait. Greenwood has collaborated with him on two albums, 2009’s ‘Basof Mitraglim Le'Hakol’ and 2023’s ‘Jarak Qaribak’.

On Greenwood and Tassa’s 2023 album ‘Jarak Qaribak’ (Your Neighbour Is Your Friend), they brought together Iraqi classics and features musicians from across the Middle East including Lebanese singer Rashid Al Najjar, Iraqi vocalist Karrar Alsaadi, and Palestinian singer Nour Freteikh. Much of the album refers to the work of Tassa’s own grandfather Daoud, a member of the Al-Kuwaity Brothers, Kuwait-born Israeli musicians of Iraqi-Iranian ancestry who were pioneers of Iraq and Kuwait’s classical music in the first half of the 20th century.

Greenwood has criticised the calls from BDS that his project with Tassa is “unjustifiable” and “are urging the silencing of this – or any – artistic effort made by Israeli Jews.”

“But I can’t join that call,” Greenwood writes, “the silencing of Israeli filmmakers/musicians/dancers when their work tours abroad – especially when it’s at the urging of their fellow western filmmakers/musicians/artists – feels unprogressive to me. Not least because it’s these people that are invariably the most progressive members of any society.”

Thom Yorke, right, and Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead perform during the band's headlining set on the first weekend of the 2012 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival
Thom Yorke, right, and Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead perform during the band's headlining set on the first weekend of the 2012 Coachella Valley Music and Arts FestivalChris Pizzello/AP

Prior to the concert that Greenwood performed with Tassa in Tel Aviv on 26 May, the English musician was seen at a protest against the Israeli government, calling for a release of the hostages and new elections in the country.

At the end of the statement, he writes that “no art is as ‘important’ as stopping all the death and suffering around us.” Before noting that he doesn’t believe “doing nothing” is the solution and that “silencing Israeli artists for being born Jewish in Israel doesn’t seem like any way to reach an understanding between the two sides of the apparently endless conflict.”

This isn’t the first time Greenwood and his band Radiohead have clashed with the BDS movement.

Greenwood’s wife is Israeli visual artist Sharona Katan and the pair have raised their family in the Jewish tradition. Katan’s nephew served in the Israeli Defence Forces and was killed in the Israel-Hamas war.

Since then, Katan has made posts on social media ostensibly more critical of Hamas regime in Gaza than Israel’s aggression against the region. While these posts aren’t made by Greenwood himself, social media users have used it to paint his continued collaboration with Tassa as an implicit agreement with her views. “Jonny's psycho, right wing, anti-vax wife would probably ground him and send him to his room without his toys if he didn't tow the line. Or destroy him financially....” one Reddit user posted on a thread about the concerts.

Before the current offensive that began with the October 7 attacks last year, Radiohead were criticised in 2017 for performing in Israel by influential artists within the BDS movement including Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters and filmmaker Ken Loach.

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Radiohead lead singer Thom Yorke then responded that: “Playing in a country isn’t the same as endorsing its government.”

“We’ve played in Israel for over 20 years through a succession of governments, some more liberal than others. As we have in America,” Yorke continued. “Music, art and academia is about crossing borders not building them, about open minds not closed ones, about shared humanity, dialogue and freedom of expression.”

For Greenwood, it looks unlikely that he will move from his position. The combination of his family ties and artistic belief in shared cultural expression might rankle fervent believers in the BDS movement, and while pro-Palestinian supporters are right to demand artists make it clear whether they are against the current horrifying events in Gaza, Greenwood’s position is consistent as an anti-war stance that doesn’t commit to BDS’s aims.

The BDS movement is a legitimate approach from the international community to demand the Israeli government ceases its violent campaign. However, it isn’t the sole method. It is possible to be pro-Palestinian and believe that artistic collaboration is a more valuable approach, as Greenwood does.

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