Turkey’s Sudden Ban on Trade With Israel Is Already Affecting Jews in Both Countries

Cargo containers are seen at the Port of Izmir in Izmir, Turkey, on May 6, shortly after Turkey’s decision to halt trade with Israel. (Mustafa Kaya/Xinhau News Agency via Getty Images via JTA.org)

David I. Klein

ISTANBUL – Despite months of deteriorating relations and increasingly hostile rhetoric, the complete shutdown of trade between Turkey and Israel earlier this month came as a shock to many.

The shutdown, which Turkey’s Islamist-leaning president Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced May 3, is putting pressure on prices in Israel, cutting off a major trade route for kosher food and affecting people on both corners of the eastern Mediterranean.

“For the last two weeks, everything stopped. We can’t do normal business,” Rami Simon, a Turkish Jew who trades aluminum and construction materials to Israel, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

The shutdown is one of the most sweeping steps taken by any country to oppose Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza. Erdogan said trade would resume only when there is a permanent cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, the terror group that Erdogan has said he supports.

It also marks a significant breach for countries that have long had close physical and economic ties and, until recently, resilient diplomatic relations despite periods of tension.

In 2023, Turkey was Israel’s fourth-largest trading partner, responsible for billions of dollars of exports to Israel. (Israel has sent a much smaller volume of goods, mainly oil and industrial supplies, to Turkey.)

As the world’s seventh-largest food producer, Turkey has been the main source of some staples consumed in Israel, including pasta and chocolate. And the countries’ close proximity — it’s about 400 miles by sea between Mersin, southern Turkey’s largest port, and Tel Aviv — made Turkey a go-to source for food and construction materials.

“Given the geographical proximity of Turkey, you could order something and within a couple of days you have it,” explains Hay Eitan Cohen Yanarocak, a Turkish-born Jew and scholar of Turkey-Israel relations at Tel Aviv University. “So that was a huge plus for the Israeli businessman, who preferred to do business with Turkey rather than other more distant destinations.”

To serve the Israeli market, more than 300 kosher-certified factories operate across Turkey. Before the embargo, at any given moment around 20 Israeli mashgichim — kosher certifiers — would be visiting to check on factories across the country, from the Iranian border to the Aegean coast.

That’s all ground to a halt, a source familiar with the Turkish kashrut industry told JTA, and Turkish factory owners and Israeli certification agencies are reconsidering their contracts. The source requested anonymity because of the delicate political situation.

Some kosher foods require oversight only once or twice a year, meaning that current production runs could be salvaged if a ceasefire agreement is reached in the coming months. But others, according to Orthodox Jewish law, require more frequent supervision, if not constant. That includes Pas or Cholov Yisroel goods, which require Jewish supervisors to be present during the entire production runs of bread and dairy products.

Such kosher standards are common in haredi Orthodox communities, and even U.S. kosher supermarkets frequently stock goods produced in Turkey that are exported to the United States from Israel by Israel-based kosher brands. The ban also affects these products.

“Prices are going to rise,” Yanarocak said, noting that in Israel he’s seeing particular concern about the price of tomatoes. Although Israel is famous for its cultivation of tomatoes, it has also imported huge quantities from Turkey — nearly $40 million worth a year in recent years.

Yanarocak said he foresaw more lasting effects, too. “I assume that the [Israeli] government will draw some conclusions from this, that we have to do everything in order to minimize our dependency on other nations, not only Turkey. Therefore, I’m expecting to see an increase in national production,” Yanarocak said.

But crops always wax and wane, and a shortage of tomatoes is a relatively manageable problem for Israel, he said. Other products can’t withstand an interruption in supply, making it likely that Israel will look for more stable suppliers faster.

“It will be very hard for Turkey to come back with such strategic goods mentioned like steel, cement, aluminum, and other construction materials,” Yanarocak said. “Because these products are considered crucial for the country, in the long run, I assume that Turkey will not be able to come back to the Israeli market in the same way, even if we witness a U-turn.”

If an about-face in Erdogan’s stance comes — and some say the signs of one are already showing — it would mark a return to the norm in the history of the two countries’ relations.

Turkey and Israel have long had close economic relations. They also maintained largely positive diplomatic ones for decades while Turkey was under the rule of secularist parties in the 20th century.

Relations have been rockier since Erdogan’s ascendance in the early 2000s, but even at their lowest points — such as after the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010, in which Israel raided a Turkish ship that was attempting to breach Israel’s blockade of Gaza — trade remained high.

On Oct. 6, the day before Hamas terrorists attacked Israel, diplomatic relations were at their highest point in years. Ambassadors had once again been exchanged between the two countries after the rocky period following the Mavi Marmara incident. Erdogan had spoken positively about his calls with Israeli President Isaac Herzog and was even planning a trip to Israel.

Yet soon after the Oct. 7 attack, Erdogan pivoted towards Hamas, calling the group not terrorists but “liberators” and “Mujahideen,” an Islamic term for a holy warrior. Some analysts interpreted his stance as an effort to appeal to conservative voters who have gravitated towards the Islamist New Welfare party, which has loudly accused Erdogan of being too soft in its support of Gaza and the Palestinians.

In March, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, known locally as AKP, suffered its largest loss in two decades, bleeding voters on the right. It was soon after that Erdogan ramped up his pressure on Israel and announced the trade embargo.

After Israeli officials suggested last week that Turkey may already be softening its stance, Turkey denied that it was easing the embargo but did clarify that there would be a three-month period during which pre-existing contracts could be satisfied.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan right, shakes hands with the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis during an official ceremony at the Presidential Complex in Ankara, Turkey, on May 13. (Turkish Presidency/Murat Cetinmuhurdar/Anadolu via Getty Images via JTA.org)

But Erdogan further strained ties this weekend, when during a meeting with the Greek prime minister he doubled down on his stance that Hamas was not a terror group and declared that over 1,000 Hamas fighters were being treated in Turkish hospitals. He did not explain when or how they arrived in Turkey from Gaza.

Still, there are glimmers of hope that the trade ban could be short-lived. Though formal ambassadors have not been reinstated, low-level Israeli diplomats returned to Ankara this week. It’s the first Israeli diplomatic presence in the Turkish capital since October.

Yanarocak noted that he also sees hope in their counterparts at the Turkish Cultural Center in Tel Aviv, who, despite rhetoric from the top, have continued their work.

Turkey’s Jewish population has been in decline for decades, with spurts of emigration in step with periods of political and economic instability. But between 10,000 and 15,000 Jews live in the country today, most in Istanbul with a smaller community in the Aegean port city of Izmir. Many of those who remain are involved in exports with Israel.

Simon said he and others he knows are looking into other countries to ship their products to, but it’s an industry based on connections, and new markets are hard to break into. He also noted that he supplied buyers in Gaza and Palestinian areas of the West Bank as well and now cannot ship his products to them because Israeli ports are closed to Turks.

Simon also said he’s pinning his hopes on a ceasefire, even though Hamas and Israel have so far failed to reach one. Hamas has not accepted any of the ceasefire deals offered to it, insisting that only a permanent ceasefire would be tolerable. Israel rejects the idea of any ceasefire that leaves Hamas in power in Gaza.

“Hopefully we won’t still be thinking about this in a few months when there will be a ceasefire in Gaza. We are waiting for this,” Simon said about the trade embargo.

“If it’s going to take five or six months we’re going to have a big, big issue and problem,” he added. “After that, if we can still not do business, to export to Israel, I think many people are going to try to look for a different solution for their lives, and maybe ultimately leave Turkey.”


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