| 6.6°C Dublin

Kevin Myers: Our traditions, for good or evil, shape us all

'HOUND Dog' is perhaps the most influential piece of verse in the latter half of the 20th Century. Its author, Jerry Leiber, was called ashore last week, after a life in which he either created or inspired some of the greatest popular music of our time. Needless to say, he was Jewish.

Most popular musical forms of the 20th Century have been the work of Jews. It is absurd but true: 'My Fair Lady', 'The King and I', 'South Pacific', 'Oliver', 'Oklahoma', 'Camelot', 'Porgy and Bess', and 'Jailhouse Rock' were all written by about half a dozen members of a tiny Semitic sect of exiles from Palestine.

Without a handful of other Jewish songwriters -- Doc Pomus, Mort Schuman, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller -- there really would be no Elvis Presley or rock and roll. Deduct Robert Zimmerman -- aka Bob Dylan -- and Carole King and bang goes 20th-Century popular musical culture.

Some musical elements of this culture are very obviously Jewish. "Oh what a beautiful morning", now transformed forever into a nursery rhyme-cum-folksong, is quite clearly derived from the traditions of the Jewish cantor. Other cultural aspects result from the Jewish interpretation of, or hybridisation with, various non-Jewish musical traditions. The young Bob Dylan was inspired by the British Border ballads, Dominic Behan and the Clancy Brothers. The Gershwin brothers quarried and formalised African-American music; so how much did the great Duke Elliot owe to his Jewish contemporaries?

Yet Jews also make us uncomfortable. They both succeed and exceed. Is Alan Shatter the first-ever Irish minister whose working day starts at 5am? Just how did Jewish immigrants to Ireland prosper when Irish Catholics were failing and emigrating?

The wonderful 'Jewish Ireland -- a Social History', by Ray Rivlin, provides some answers. (Though I noted one small error: the caretaker of Zion Schools in the 1930s was Bill Collis, not Bill Collins). This really fascinating book gave me my first understanding of the vital importance of food taboos in maintaining a distinct sense of Jewishness. If some people would go hungry -- as many Jews would -- rather than eat any part of a leg of beef from which every single vein had not been totally excised, then they are clearly possessed of a quite extraordinary determination.

What makes this book especially valuable is its frankness about the less attractive side of Jewishness: the money-lending. It is fatuous and infantile to pretend that Jewish people are mono-dimensionally intelligent, virtuous, witty, artistic, kind and creative. Jews didn't just give us Einstein and Rubinstein and the Oistrakhs: they gave us the great financial fraudsters Ernest Saunders, Robert Maxwell and Bernie Madoff. The Rothschilds, the Lehman Brothers and Goldman-Sachs were and are what they are partly because of their Jewishness.

This is also true on the other extreme -- the communist Jews, like Trotsky, or Lazar Moise Kaganovish -- the Eichmann of the USSR -- or the locally recruited Jewish NKVD officers who brought disaster to the Baltic States in 1940 and again in 1945. If I can raise the Jewishness of Jews I admire, I may also do so for Jews I -- at the very least -- do not. No matter who we are, our traditions, for good or evil, help to shape us all.

I SUSPECT that a post-Holocaust reluctance to be honest about the many facets of Jewishness is why Israel -- the most civilised and tolerant state in the entire Middle East -- remains a pariah amongst the liberal elites of Europe. Anti-Israeliness has now become an authorised anti-semitism. Instead of making discerning and precise criticisms of certain Jewish usurious traditions and which might thereby attract accusations of anti-Semitism, liberals instead direct their generalised, sanctimonious ire at beleaguered Israel. So, in the chic unprincipled pieties of the post-Holocaust value system, it is now actually fashionable to vilify large numbers of Jews, provided they are Israelis.

Paradoxically, this politically correct anti-Semitism is actually facilitated by Jewish hypersensitivity: even an accurate reference to the large numbers of Jewish bankers in Wall Street is usually denounced as anti-Semitic by B'nai Brith, the Anti-Defamation League or by 'The Jewish Chronicle'. Perversely and possibly sub-consciously, Israel thus becomes a culturally acceptable proxy target for those who want to, but do not dare, criticise a few crooked Jewish financiers.

Of course, there are sound historical reasons for Jewish hypersensitivity: but they remain largely historical and it is simply ludicrous, as one New York observer recently did, to lump Jews, gays and blacks into a single marginalised category that is under now serious threat in a recessionary US. The Klan is bust. The few neo-Nazis are buffoons. Overt anti-Semitism, wherever it exists in Europe and the US, is largely Islamist.

The Diaspora, though a disaster for the Israelites, was probably the most enriching event to happen the greater world since the invention of agriculture. The benefits that Jews have brought to any community vastly outweigh the demerits: nonetheless, it is disingenuous and delusional to maintain that there is never any negative aspect to having Jews in one's midst.

Any ethnic or religious group that retains its identity must inevitably have its weaknesses, otherwise it is composed not of humans but archangels -- who, as it happens, have all been rather busy recently restringing their harps to play 'Hound Dog'.