Arab Spring, Israeli Summer, and the Process of Cognitive Liberation


The burst of collective action in Tunisia, Egypt, and other Arab countries in the Spring of 2011 was a surprise to almost everybody – including students of social movements who were knowledgeable about those countries. Similarly, the tent city demonstrations for a new social contract in Israel in the Summer of 2011, culminating on Sept. 3rd, 2011, with the largest demonstration in Israeli history, were similarly unexpected. And I will argue here that, in spite of the adversarial relationship between Israel and its Arab neighbors, the Israeli movement for social justice was heavily influenced by the Arab Spring.

To understand the nature of the connection, I will attempt to unpack the flawed social movement concept of “cognitive liberation.” The basic problem is that the concept tends to conflate and blur different simultaneous but at least partially independent processes. One phase of the process, for example, is said to involve the withdrawal of legitimacy from authorities. The concept assumes that people oppressed by structures of domination identify with the system and accept its supporting ideology. But there is massive evidence that what appears to be acceptance or support, is merely compliance because of a sense of resignation and fear. While I have no direct evidence on this score, it seems highly unlikely that the Egyptians who filled Tahrir Square were in the process of withdrawing legitimacy. A much more likely explanation is that the regime had long since lost its legitimacy and what was changing was the sense that, by acting together, it was possible to do something about it. Furthermore, the actions of the regime in attempting to control the collective action often exacerbate the pre-existing anger and righteous indignation.

Furthermore, as Sharon Nepstad (1997, p. 471) argues, the concept of cognitive liberation tends to emphasize a state of consciousness rather than a process or set of processes. “It conveys what people believe but not how they change their beliefs. . . How do the disempowered begin to believe that they can alter their lot in life? How is resignation converted into insurgency?”

Finally, the concept of cognitive liberation does not recognize one of the most important of the simultaneous cognitive processes taking place as collective action develops – the construction of a collective identity. Both the Arab spring and the Israeli summer required overcoming a number of potential cleavages in creating the “we” who are acting. Would the “we” of the insurgency against Mubarak, for example, be defined as Islamist or as a much broader group that involved secularists and more token observers of Islam? Would the Israeli protestors demanding a new social contract be explicit in their opposition to spending money on expanding settlements in the territories? Or would there be silence on this point to avoid internal division and to keep the “we” more inclusive? One cannot really understand the success of this mobilization effort without closely examining the movement’s internal negotiation over collective identity.

The problems with the concept of cognitive liberation can be overcome by using, instead, the concept of collective action frames with their three components: injustice, agency, and collective identity (Gamson 1992). These frames, to quote Snow and Benford (1992), are “action oriented sets of beliefs and meanings that inspire and legitimate social movement activities and campaigns.”

The injustice component refers to the moral indignation expressed in this form of political consciousness. This is not merely a cognitive or intellectual judgment about something being unfair but also what cognitive psychologists call a hot cognition – one that is laden with emotion (see Zajonc 1980). An injustice frame requires a consciousness of motivated human actors who carry some of the onus for bringing about harm and suffering.

The agency component refers to the consciousness that it is possible to alter conditions or policies through collective action. This implies some sense of collective efficacy and denies the immutability of some undesirable situation. It suggests not merely that something can be done to change things but that “we” can do something.

The identity component refers to the process of defining this “we,” typically in opposition to some “they” who have different values or interests. Without an adversarial component, the potential target of collective action is likely to remain an abstraction –e.g., hunger, disease, or poverty.

Unlike the concept of cognitive liberation, there is no idea here of phases but rather of simultaneous processes. The sense of injustice, for example, may come from “suddenly imposed grievances” (cf. Walsh 1981) but it is often a gradual process with the advanced stage hidden by a fear-driven lack of public acknowledgment. Once the process is set in motion, the social control actions of authorities may fuel it by suddenly imposing new grievances.

Collective Action Frames in the Arab Spring and Israeli Summer

There is little doubt that publicity about collective action in one country can and does influence the occurrence of such action in other countries. But, I will argue here, that is it almost exclusively the agency component that produces such influence and that the identity and injustice components are almost entirely based on local conditions and actions.

The Injustice Component in Arab Spring and Israeli Summer

I doubt that anyone would seriously argue that the sense of injustice in Tunisia which started the Arab spring came from a suddenly imposed grievance. When Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire, it was a message of “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” The sense of injustice had a long build-up from, high unemployment, food inflation, widespread corruption, lack of political freedoms, and generally poor living conditions. While Egyptians may have had some sympathy for the injustices that their Tunisian brothers and sisters were facing, it had little or nothing to do with their own locally grown sense of injustice.

Similarly, it was not the injustice component of Israeli collective action frames where there was borrowing from Arab spring. Israel has undergone a sharp increase in economic inequality over the last two decades, much like the experience of the United States. “The Israeli society that stand here – and also, it’s important to note, also the Israeli society that chose to stay home this evening – reached its red line,” Daphni Leef1 told the crowd of 300,000 gathered in Tel Aviv’s State Square (Kikar HaMedina) on Saturday, September 3rd. “And then it stood up and said: Enough! No more! You can cheat some of the people some of the time, but you can’t cheat everyone all the time.”

What began as a protest against the high cost of housing quickly spread to other issues – transport, childcare, food and fuel, low salaries paid to many professionals, tax reform and welfare payments. Student leader Itzik Shmuli told the rally, “We are the new Israelis. And the new Israelis want only one simple thing: to live with dignity in this country.”2 Daphni Leef talked of a government that had “abandoned its elderly, its sick, its immigrants, its weak. . . We are not here just to survive, we are here in order to live. . . We’ve replaced the word ‘charity’ with the word justice.”“The demand for social justice,” Ariella Azoulay writes3, “contains more than the call for a fairer allocation of resources. This demand embodies the fundamental right . . . not to harm others.”

The Agency Component in the Arab Spring and Israeli Summer

While the injustice component is home grown, the agency component of collective action frames is very much subject to influence by example. In Tunisia, it took less than a month of protests and civil unrest to oust President Ben Ali who resigned and fled the country, ending 23 years in power. The rapidity with which this happened in what was essentially a campaign of non-violent protest and civil disobedience must have emboldened Egyptian protesters and enhanced their sense of collective political efficacy.

The Egyptian uprising began on January 25th as a campaign of non-violent civil disobedience, popular demonstrations, marches, and strikes directed against the regime of President Hosni Mubarak. The campaign spread from Cairo to other cities in Egypt and it took only until February 11th for Mubarak to resign from office. A sense of agency is greatly increased by the failure of social control measures on the part of authorities. In this case, the government imposed a curfew but the protesters defied it and the police and military did not enforce it. The rapid success of the collective action in Tunisia and Egypt undoubtedly increased the sense of agency by demonstrators in other Arab countries including Yemen, Syria, and Libya.

One would expect citizens of other Arab countries to take heart from the success of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions but it is more surprising that Israelis would also take the example to heart. Harriet Sherwood (Manchester Guardian, Sept. 4, 2011) interviews a journalist, Ruti Hertz, under a banner a banner saying “Walk like an Egyptian.” Some Israeli wags labeled the tent-city demonstration as the “tentifada” and re-christened Kikar HaMedina as Tahrir Square.

Azoulay (Sept. 19, 2011) shows an active-stills photograph of demonstrations holding up a giant banner in Hebrew and Arabic. The Hebrew says “Egypt is here.” The Arabic shows the call which Egyptians shouted at Mubarak –“Irhal”– which means “leave.”

Leef’s speech to the assembly in Tel Aviv is full of references to an increased sense of collective agency. “We’ve created a new discourse here,” she intones. We’ve replaced the word consumer with the word citizen. We’ve replaced the verb ‘to wait’ with the verb ‘to change’. We’ve replaced the word alone with the word together.”

The Identity Component in the Arab Spring and Israeli Summer

The challenge for movements in both the Arab world and in Israel is to create a “we” that cuts across potential lines of cleavage in the society. The major challenge in the Arab world is across the divide between the more radical elements of the Islamist movement and efforts by those who are experiencing poor living conditions, regardless of the intensity or nature of their religious convictions.

I lack any systematic data on how this difficult challenge was negotiated in Tunisia and Egypt. It appears to have been met successfully but the mechanism and dynamics remains, for me, an untold story. My impression is that the Moslem Brotherhood in Egypt exercised deliberate restraint and made a conscious effort not to have the uprising defined as an Islamist movement. I would guess that the more secular elements also made a conscious effort not to exclude Islamist elements but to work with them in a broad coalition. But these are impressions without any solid empirical foundation.

In Israel, I have some incomplete but suggestive evidence. First, it is clear that the demonstrations did not succeed in overcoming one major cleavage in Israeli society – between secular and non-orthodox Jews and the ultra-orthodox (“haredim”). I could find no evidence that haredim participated in the tent-city movement in any significant way. But this was not for lack of effort on the part of the organizers who made a point of including the daughter of Ovadia Yosef on their “experts” committee and gave her high visibility in their initial press announcements.4

However, the movement did succeed in overcoming several other social cleavages in appealing to concerns about economic and social injustices in Israeli society. Leef warns the crowd that there is not one decisive moment but a process. “Was there one fateful day when the social gaps became unbearable? Did swinish capitalism make a particular moment of victory? Can we put our finger on that one privatization too many? There was no such moment. There was a process. . . This process of ours is just beginning now. We have demands of the government . . . because things must change:

  • *** If you are a resident of Yerucham – things must change.5
  • *** If you are a child whose parents have no money to pay for your school trip – things must change.
  • *** If you are a pensioner or holocaust survivor – things must change.
  • *** If you a Gaza evacuee – things must change.
  • *** If you are a woman in Rahat6– things must change.”

Azoulay (Sept. 19, 2011) writes of the refusal of the movement to accept conventional, socially constructed cleavages. “Jews versus Palestinians, the religious against the secular, middle class and workers, Ashkenazi and Misrachi – are now forming new coalitions of interest groups that clearly cut across these lines: those demanding safe shelter, mothers claiming the economic rights, [or] victims of the banking system. . .”

To a limited degree, the tent-city demonstrations succeeded in cutting across the cleavage between Israeli Jews and Israeli Palestinians. Sherwood’s report in the Guardian quotes an Israeli-Arab at the Haifa rally, “Today we are changing the rules of the game. No more coexistence based on hummus and fava beans. What is happening here is true coexistence, when Arabs and Jews march together shoulder to shoulder calling for social justice and peace.”Azoulay (Sept. 19, 2011) describes “the slogan heard time and again during these weeks –‘Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies’.”

The efforts to create an inclusive “we” that cuts across cleavage lines is undoubtedly the subject of internal strategic debates on which I have limited evidence. The major issue is over how much to emphasize the connection between the issues of social justice inside the green line and the large amount of money spent on expanding settlements in the occupied territories and providing security for them. While there is widespread recognition that this money could, instead, be spent on building housing and other infra-structure inside Israel, movement leaders have generally preferred to keep the connection implicit rather than using it to call for an end to the occupation.


To understand the spread of the Arab spring among different Arab countries and to the movement for social justice in Israel in the following summer, the concept of collective action frames is much more useful than the flawed concept of cognitive liberation. Unlike the latter which conflates analytically distinct processes and ignores the crucial process of negotiating a collective identity, the concept of collective action frames distinguishes the components and problematizes the connection among them. The injustice component is crucial for integrating all three into a coherent collective action frame.

In accounting for the spread of collective action from one country to another, the agency component is crucial; the other components depend more on local conditions. Even with the agency component, while a sense of collective efficacy may be inspired by events elsewhere, it is heavily influenced by the social control response of authorities. If some of the agents of the regime are equivocal or refuse to carry out the repressive orders of the authorities, this can greatly reinforce the sense that collective action can make a significant difference and even overthrow the existing regime.

The ultimate outcomes that will flow from the collective actions of the Arab spring and Israeli summer remain uncertain. It is a lot easier to unite groups with different grievances against a particular regime in oppositional action than it is to maintain solidarity in exercising power. Once the common enemy is gone, the solidarity maintained during collective action may vanish as well. Nor does the sense of collective efficacy that one could topple the regime lead to efficacy in solving the injustices that originally energized collective action.


  • 1

     The 25 year-old Leef was one of the organizers of the original tent protest.

  • 2

     Quoted in Harriet Sherwood, Manchester Guardian, Sept. 4, 2011.

  • 3

     Azoulay is an Israeli visual theorist who runs a popular blog, In the Moment. The September 19, 2011 entry was a long essay, “Civil Awakening,” with numerous photographs of the demonstrations.

  • 4

     Ovadia Yosef was the former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel and a founder and spiritual leader of the ultra-orthodox Shas party that is part of the governing coalition.

  • 5

     Yerucham is a poor development town in southern Israel, originally settled by religious Zionists.

  • 6

     A Bedouin village.