Settlements aside, a Zionist is someone who supports a Jewish state in what is now Israel, and an anti-Zionist is someone who doesn’t believe the Jewish state of Israel should exist. In the introduction to the misleadingly titled “The State of Israel vs. the Jews” — which is not about the secular-orthodox conflict tearing Israeli society apart — the French-Jewish journalist Sylvain Cypel says he became an “active anti-Zionist” in 1969, while studying at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, because Israeli students spoke about Palestinians exactly the way French settlers used to talk about Arabs.

To Cypel, Israel was evolving into a “racist, bullying little superpower.” Today he calls it “a thug nation.” Accordingly, the book presents a one-sided condemnation of Israel’s “contempt for international law,” “crime of apartheid” and “systemic cruelty.” Cypel’s overall argument is that Israel is bad for the Jews.

Writing with a bitter, sarcastic tone, Cypel opens his attack with a barrage of disturbing accounts of Israeli soldiers abusing Palestinians, and he never lets up. Without ever mentioning the history that led to such brutal behavior, he moves on to Israel’s controversial 2018 nation-state bill, which codified legal preference for Jewish citizens into the country’s Basic Laws, making Israel an “ethnocracy,” not a democracy. With subsequent chapters on how the Israeli Supreme Court “has given legal cover to the progressive ruination of the Palestinians,” how Israeli cyber-surveillance companies and weapons manufacturers enable nefarious governments, and how Benjamin Netanyahu allied with antisemitic regimes, Cypel further places Israel on the wrong side of history.

In fact, because of Israel’s illiberal actions, Cypel frequently questions the country’s “legitimacy.” I find this logic bizarre; if a state were no longer “legitimate” because of its abhorrent behavior, we would have to question the legitimacy of perhaps half the countries in the world — the United States under Donald Trump included. No, Cypel’s attack should never have been against the state of Israel but against the right-wing parties that have led it.

To be clear, I’m not defending the actions of Israel; I’m criticizing Cypel’s argument, because it’s full of fallacies. For instance, he has a chapter on the “hysteria” of Israelis’ racist attitudes toward African asylum seekers, which, combined with what Cypel calls Israelis’ “barefaced racism” toward Arabs, appears to qualify Israel as “a white supremacist state.” Yet Cypel ignores the fact that to actual white supremacists, Jews aren’t White. So though the Basic Laws are indeed prejudiced under the nation-state bill, they can’t accurately be considered racist — it’s Jewish supremacy, not white supremacy.

Many of us might not feel comfortable with the idea of Jewish supremacy, but the very purpose of the state of Israel is, to quote Amos Oz, for Jewish people to have a “legal right to a sovereign existence as a majority, if only in a very small democratic state.”

In perhaps the most misleading chapter, Cypel relates numerous anecdotes of people being detained and interrogated at Ben Gurion Airport. As his subjects are either supporters of the anti-occupation boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement or otherwise critical of Israel, he concludes that these humiliating detentions were politically motivated and evidence of Israel’s illiberal “security state.”

Yet anyone who’s flown on El Al knows that such interrogations are common. When I visited Israel in January 2019, I was detained for more than two hours. Like the people in Cypel’s chapter, I endured invasive questioning, was humiliatingly strip-searched, and was allowed to board the plane only without luggage or electronics.

If I promoted anti-Israel opinions, perhaps I’d assume that was the reason for my being singled out. If I were a person of color, I’d probably conclude that I was harassed because the El Al personnel were racist. Rather, I understood such zealous procedures as necessary security precautions. So, while I certainly didn’t enjoy the experience, I also didn’t misinterpret the motivation.

Ultimately, Cypel’s main idea is correct: Israel’s actions are bad for the Jews — but not in the way he means. The explosion of antisemitic violence during the May 2021 Israel-Gaza conflict shows that what happens in Israel doesn’t stay in Israel: Pro-Palestinian zealots attacked and abused Jews all over the United States, simply because they were Jewish. But to argue that Israel should change its behavior so that diaspora Jews aren’t attacked, or that American Jews shouldn’t support Israel if they don’t want to be persecuted, is essentially blaming the victim.

The fact is that “those ignorant people who conflate Israeli identity with Jewish identity,” as Cypel writes, will hate diaspora Jews no matter whether they support Israel or not. Blinded by his anti-Zionist agenda, Cypel amazingly avoids giving serious attention to the real threat to Jewish bodies because of prevalent antisemitism on all sides of the political spectrum, all over the world.

Cypel’s aim might be to turn more Jewish intellectuals into anti-Zionist activists. For support, he quotes numerous Jewish American intellectuals who increasingly perceive Israel as “politically backward and ethically immoral,” and he hopes his French peers will soon follow. Yet he gets most of his material from articles published in the left-wing Israeli newspaper Haaretz, so the atrocities he presents are already known by any Jewish liberal who’s been paying attention.

And for any non-Jewish liberal, “The State of Israel vs. the Jews” will only fuel the already ablaze anti-Zionism prevalent among progressives — an anti-Zionism that, yes, often bleeds into antisemitism. But if Cypel actually wanted to convince anyone on the other side, then he’s failed. Because you don’t change anyone’s mind by mocking them — that merely pushes them further into their narrow-minded position — and you don’t win a debate with a one-sided argument. That is to say, no matter what side of the Israeli-Palestinian issue you’re on, “The State of Israel vs. the Jews” will be infuriating.

Then again, perhaps that’s precisely Cypel’s intent.

The State of Israel vs. the Jews

By Sylvain Cypel

Translated by William Rodarmor

Other Press. 360 pp. $27.99