Column JN Sept 19 2021
A woman died in Israel last week, whose name was once on the lips of almost every Jewish activist in Britain and America — and yet I’d lay bets that today you’d be hard pushed to find people familiar with her story.
Ida Nudel, who died aged 90, was an unlikely heroine of the Soviet Jewry movement. She was an economist who shot to prominence after 1970, when she first applied to leave the Soviet Union.
Nudel, like so many other Jews in her day, lost her job and threw all her considerable energies into campaigning to leave the country. In parallel, her sister Elena Fridman, who left for Israel with her husband and son, in 1972, harried the authorities to let Nudel go.
In 1978, Nudel, who must have reckoned she had nothing to lose, showed considerable bravery by flying a banner over the balcony of her Moscow apartment which read “KGB, give me my visa to Israel”. Unsurprisingly, this did not go down well and she was sentenced to four years of internal exile in Siberia, where she endured hideous deprivation.
In March 1982 Ida Nudel was released from Siberia, but it was plain that the Soviet authorities did not know what to do with her. They could not lose face by allowing her to leave the country, but she was clearly, in their eyes, a troublemaker. Part of the condition for letting her leave Siberia was that she should have no contact with other refuseniks, but, as usual, Nudel took no notice.
A month after her release from Siberia I went to Moscow with members of the 35s, the Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry. The intention was to meet Nudel — but every time we were on the verge of seeing her, we would discover that she had been moved to another location. During our entire time in Moscow we never caught up with her, though we did see many other refuseniks, and learned eventually that she had been sent to live in Moldova, where she stayed for five years.
Finally, 17 long years after she had begun agitating to leave the Soviet Union, Ida Nudel was permitted to go to Israel, where she arrived in 1987.
As other long-term political captives have discovered to their cost, the strength of the campaign to free them has often depended on vicarious factors: how good-looking or young the person was, whether or not they had camera-attractive family or supporters, how articulate they were. Ida Nudel barely had any of these qualities. She had one high-profile global supporter, the actress Jane Fonda, who met her in the Soviet Union before her release and came to welcome her when she arrived in Israel.
There is also the difficult issue of what becomes of a refusenik after they have achieved their exit visa. Some Soviet Jews — notably Natan Sharansky and Yuli Edelstein — chose political prominence. Others faded into much-longed for domestic obscurity.
Ida Nudel chose far-right Israeli politics, clashing with other former Soviet Jews and even testifying in a libel case brought by Sharansky — against a man who had claimed he was a KGB informer. Nudel, true to her spirit of contrariness, testified against Sharansky.
She supported Yigal Amir, Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin, and campaigned against Israel’s pullout from Gaza. She was a disappointed woman, who never found regular employment in Israel and railed against the way Jews from Russia were treated.
Nevertheless, Ida Nudel deserves to be remembered with honour: for the work she did in supporting other Jews while still inside the Soviet Union, when she became known as their “guardian angel”.
It seems to me that all successful protest movements need a stroppy, aggravating and tiresome person at their forefront. Otherwise, the world would not pay attention. Nudel’s heirs are not biological, but natural — Greta Thunberg, Malala, and our very own tough Jewish women, Tracy-Ann Oberman and Rachel Riley. So on Succot, the anniversary of her arrival in Israel, I am raising a glass to Ida Nudel.