Gavriel Cohen’s conversations with Isaiah Berlin


Gavriel (‘Gaby’) Cohen (1928–2021) was an Israeli historian who served in the Knesset for the Alignment and Labor Party from 1965 to 1969.

Cohen joined the Palmach in 1946 and fought in the 1948 Arab–Israeli War. In 1949 he was one of the founders of Palmachim, a coastal kibbutz some ten kilometres south of Tel Aviv, leaving to study history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1951–4 and 1956–8. He joined the Ahdut haAvoda branch of the political party Mapam in 1953, staying with Ahdut haAvoda when it split from Mapam in 1954. He married Batya Barlas in 1955. From 1959 to 1962 he studied for a DPhil – supervised by Elizabeth Monroe (1905–86) – on ‘British Policy in Palestine from the Second World War to the end of the Israeli War of Independence’ at St Antony’s College, Oxford (making further visits in later years), but did not complete the degree. It was probably during his first visit to Oxford that he met IB. From 1962 he taught history at Tel Aviv University (where he was awarded a PhD), becoming a professor in 1976, the year in which he published two books based on his doctoral research at Oxford, Churchill and Palestine 1939–1942 and The British Cabinet and the Question of Palestine, April–July 1943. He was Dean of the Humanities Faculty 1983–7. Thereafter he became a member of Israel’s Council for Higher Education.

In 1987–9 Cohen held a series of thirty conversations with IB in the UK, presumably with a view to writing an account of IB’s life and opinions. Illness unfortunately prevented him from executing this plan, but the conversations had been recorded and transcribed, and thanks to the generous help of his daughter Ya'alah it is now possible to make these revealing conversations public.

The transcripts made for Cohen by Donna Shalev, Judy Friedgott and Edna Gil are in the process of being edited by Henry Hardy for greater ease of reading. Many repetitions, false starts and garblings, and a few sensitive remarks, have already been amended or cut. Some so far indecipherable words/phrases are indicated by ‘[?]’, preceded by a space when no provisional transcription is offered, not preceded by a space when the uncertainty afflicts the preceding word(s). The recordings are posted with twice-enhanced treble and normalised speed (Cohen’s cassette player ran a little fast) to facilitate decipherment.

Corrections to the transcripts are welcome.

Links to transcripts [in progress]   1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18

Links to recordings [in progress]   1A | 1B | 1C2A | 2B | 2C3A | 3B4A | 4B56A | 6B78A | 8B910A | 10B11A | 11B12A | 12B13A | 13B1415A | 15B16A | 16B17A | 17B18A | 18B

A story about the cassettes

A (very) short story in Hebrew by the Israeli author Aner Shalev, husband of Donna Shalev, one of the transcribers (‘Cassettes’, in his 1996 collection Overtures, 144–5), re-imagines the process of transcription, speaking of ‘the deep bass of the mysterious man from the cassettes’ and relating, entirely realistically, how the same word sometimes had to be played twenty times until the transcriber was completely sure of it. A translation of the story by Ya'alah Cohen may be read here.

Quoting from the conversations

All quotations from, and references to, the conversations should use the transcripts (where available) and not the recordings. Permission for any public use (online or in print or speech) must be sought from the Trustees of the Isaiah Berlin Literary Trust.

The recommended bibliographical reference is: ‘Gavriel Cohen’s Conversations with Isaiah Berlin’ (The Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library, 2023–2024, bit.ly/GC-IB, accessed [date]). References to individual conversations should add the relevant details in the form ‘No. 7, p. 23.’

© The Trustees of the Isaiah Berlin Literary Trust and Henry Hardy 2023–2024


Selected topics

Conversation No. 1 | 4–6 October 1987

Transcript
Recording   1A | 1B | 1C


Conversation No. 2 | 26 October 1987

Transcript
Recording   2A | 2B | 2C


Conversation No. 3 | 15 November 1987

Transcript
Recording   3A | 3B


Conversation No. 4 | 26 November 1987

Transcript
Recording   4A | 4B


Conversation No. 5 | 27 November 1987

Transcript
Recording   5


Conversation No. 6 | 10 December 1987

Transcript
Recording   6A | 6B

  • Dorothy Hodgkin
  • John Crowfoot
  • Nicholas (‘Nicko’) Henderson
  • J. L. Austin
  • Karl Marx
  • Pink Lunch Club
  • Geoffrey Hudson
  • Gertrude Himmelfarb
  • Lawrence Stone
  • Reviews of Karl Marx
  • London Library
  • Alexander Herzen
  • Vissarion Belinsky
  • History of ideas
  • Karl Popper
  • Max Stirner
  • Georgy Plekhanov
  • The Encyclopedists
  • Abandoning philosophy
  • Henry M. Sheffer
  • Flying from Montreal
  • Lecturing on Russian thinkers at Harvard
  • Return to All Souls
  • Writing in the 1950s
  • Attacks on his work
  • E. H. Carr

  • Conversation No. 7 | 24 December 1987

    Transcript
    Recording   7


    Conversation No. 8 | 8 February 1988

    Transcript
    Recording   8A | 8B


    Conversation No. 9 | 17 February 1988

    Transcript
    Recording   9


    Conversation No. 10 | 18 February 1988

    Transcript
    Recording   10A | 10B


    Conversation No. 11 | 22 February 1988

    Transcript
    Recording   11A | 11B


    Conversation No. 12 | 13 March 1988

    Transcript
    Recording   12A | 12B


    Conversation No. 13 | 6 July 1988

    Transcript
    Recording   13A | 13B


    Conversation No. 14 | 11 July 1988

    Transcript
    Recording   14


    Conversation No. 15 | 17 September 1988

    Transcript
    Recording   15A | 15B


    Conversation No. 16 | 18 September 1988

    Transcript
    Recording   16A | 16B


    Conversation No. 17 | 22 September 1988

    Transcript
    Recording   17A | 17B


    Conversation No. 18 | 24 September 1988

    Conversation No. 19 | 31 September 1988

    Conversation No. 20 | 6 October 1988

    Conversation No. 21 | 16 October 1988

    Conversation No. 22 | 29 October 1988

    Conversation No. 23 | 5 December 1988

    Conversation No. 24 | 16 December 1988

    Conversation No. 25 | 31 December 1988

    Conversation No. 26 | 8 January 1989

    Conversation No. 27 | 15 January 1989

    Conversation No. 28 | 20 January 1989

    Conversation No. 29 | 27 January 1989

    Conversation No. 30 | 28 January 1989

    First posted 4 May 2023; last updated 3 May 2024

    Thanks to Howard Atherton of Apex Technology Ltd for conversion of Cohen’s original 5.25-inch floppy disks