Ido Cohen
Tel Aviv, Israel


“Moving to Tel Aviv was like entering a new world, where you realise that you can have any identity you want. I came out when I was 26. I had to get away from my parents and stop lying. But it turned out that coming out was by far the easiest part. It took two weeks to have all those dramatic conversations. It’s actually more the ongoing questions about being Jewish, and secular; and gay.” He pauses. “But this whole mess just works, for me.”

I ask what he means by ‘this whole mess’.

“Being gay in the Middle East. While there’s still a lot of things we can’t do, we can actually be ourselves. I’d much rather be part of a struggle where you’re moving forwards all the time, as opposed to somewhere that’s boring, or stagnant, or where you’re being overlooked. You shouldn’t ever judge a country by what you can’t do. You should really judge it by what you can.”

And there’s plenty you can do. Ido even knows many gay, Israeli Arabs who are accepted completely by their families, despite their conservative traditions. There are two kinds of liberalism, the kind extolled and enforced by the state and the kind that arises at a grass roots level. The more time you spend in the Middle East, the more you see just how much of that grass roots progressiveness there is. Like the man said earlier; this place is not what you think.

Ido is bursting with enthusiasm for his city, words and anecdotes almost tripping over each other as they pour forth. He’s almost overwhelmed at the prospect of showing me his favourite places. Suprisingly, our next stop is the dog park.

Tel Aviv is a city of 85,000 dogs. That’s one dog for every five people. In typically techy Israeli style, it has prompted them to create a ‘Digidog’ card; essentially a citizen’s ID for dogs granting them 24-hour vet care and even doggy tours.

The dog park is in a former cruising area, the kind rendered obsolete by changing attitudes and the growth of dating apps. We watch the dogs play; two huge, blue-eyed huskies are wrestling; the older ones, too tired for this crap, watching from the shade; the ones that think they’re human sitting beside their masters on the benches and watching silently, commenting on the craziness to themselves.

Though no longer a cruising area, this is still an important part of the gay community. A centre sponsored by the Israeli Gay Youth association for whom Ido has worked in the past, offers free HIV testing and other resources for young people. A coffee shop on site goes out of its way to employ youth undergoing gender transition.

We walk down Chaim Bialik Street, named for a rock star poet of Jewish-Russian origin and a street with great examples of Bauhaus architecture. Turning a corner, the ocean beckons in the distance.

The sandy coastline stretches 14 golden kilometers and is divided into 13 completely different beaches.

“There’s a beach for everyone. Gay, religious, dog…”

Here we see one of Ido’s most iconic achievements so far, a lifeguard’s hut that’s been transformed into a one-room boutique hotel. The project to create this PR piece was his baby for six months and he managed it with military precision.

“I look at Tel Aviv like a product, like in the tech industry.”

He also set up a series of trendy tourist information vans that move about the city to help visitors. 

“I’d much rather be part of a struggle, where you’re moving forwards all the time.”

“I had to become straight for two months and learn about cars. If you’d asked me about a car before, I’d have said ‘it’s white’. Now I know about engines and all sorts. I want visitors to feel that regardless of where they are in the city someone is watching over them.”

Clearly this is an important, influential role, with plenty of responsibility and an incredible amount of autonomy. I wonder why, considering the hierarchial politics, it went to a young, gay guy?

“I’m super oriented to the LGBT side, but when I market the city, I have to understand that I have to service a number of demographics. We have to be progressive, but we have to include everyone, not too much of what we like and know from just our world. It’s not about being gay, but it is about liberalism, and a certain flow that the city has. We need to be able to see things from everyone’s eyes, and I think I can do that, having come from some sort of minority. Of course, we could have focused elsewhere and turned this place into somewhere super-historical or super-Jewish, or all about the weather. But the tension between traditional and liberal is what is most interesting. That is Tel Aviv.”

Ido simply leaves us with what he said when we met earlier, “I’m not afraid of failure.”

If I were to get psychoanalytic, I might suggest that it’s a reflection of Israeli history. That existentially these people have been as low as it gets, so what’s so scary about a failed business venture?

If you meet people who work as civil servants, you’ll often encounter frustration, people who feel that making any change is like steering a battleship. But Ido seems to have cracked it. So perhaps it’s that very entrepreneurialism that allows him do his job with pride. In a city that values innovation and isn’t afraid to try new things, creativity certainly pays off.

Photography by Martin Perry