Ida Nudel, Legendary ex-Soviet ‘Prisoner of Zion,’ Dies at 90

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Nudel in her Rehovot home, 2010
Nudel in her Rehovot home, 2010Credit: David Bachar
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Ida Nudel, the former “prisoner of Zion” who became a symbol of the struggle of Soviet Jews to come to Israel, died Tuesday at age 90. She was buried in Hayarkon Cemetery in Tel Aviv.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Nudel’s life story, which “sparked interest and sympathy around the world, was the story of the olim [immigrants] and of the entire Jewish people – the longing for Zion, the love of the land and the struggle to come to Israel at any cost.”

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Nudel was born in 1931 near Moscow, and said that as a child she suffered from antisemitism. Her father, a soldier in the Red Army, was killed in World War II and his place of burial is unknown. Her mother died in 1971. In that year, Nudel and her sister Ilana Friedman and Friedman’s husband requested permission to move to Israel. The Friedmans were granted it, but Nudel was not. She was later dismissed from her job as an economist for what she described as “insulting the Russian soul.”

Nudel with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, 1987Credit: Maggie Eilon

Nudel later became an activist fighting for Jews who had been arrested because of their Zionist activity and their desire to live in Israel. She corresponded with them, sent them food, medicine and books, sent petitions for their cause to the authorities and arranged protests and meetings with foreign visitors to Russia, to shine a spotlight on the attitude of Russian authorities toward the Jews.

Nudel’s unrelenting struggle to allow Russian Jews to come to Israel turned her into a symbol; in the West she was known as the “angel of the prisoners of Zion.” In Israel, she was called “one of the greatest Jewish heroes of our generation.”  

Nudel was interrogated, surveilled and harassed by the KGB. In 1978, she hung a sign from her balcony in Moscow saying: “KGB, give me my exit permit,” for which she was arrested, charged with “hooliganism” and sentenced to four years’ exile in Siberia. During her trial, she said, “The years I spent in the dock were the most difficult and most beautiful years of my life. I learned to walk proudly, head held high, as a human being and as a Jew.”

Nudel in her Rehovot home, 2009Credit: Nir Shmul

During her imprisonment Nudel struck a chord with world leaders and celebrities including Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Jane Fonda and Liv Ullman. The latter played Nudel in a film about her life.

During her imprisonment she was in contact with her sister, Ilana Friedman, who lived in Israel, and kept her informed of her condition. “The testimony of prisoners of Zion and refused immigrants and their families … reveal a Jewish heroine [who] will enter the great gallery of Jewish heroines from Deborah the prophetess to Hannah Senesz,” the newspaper Davar wrote of her in 1981. 

In 1982 Nudel was released from prison but was banned from Moscow, and moved to Moldavia. In 1987, at age 55, she was allowed to come to Israel. At the end of Simhat Torah, she was flown to Israel in the private plane of a Jewish billionaire and was welcomed by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. “I didn’t know I’d be received with such fanfare. … I got to the point where I was shaking hands with people I didn’t know. Suddenly so much love, not like in Russia, where people were afraid of me because I rose up against the government,” Nudel said in an interview in Ma’ariv in 2017.

Nudel never started a family or found regular work and was disappointed that numerous promises made to her were broken. She was also disappointed in the way Russian Jews were received in Israel, calling it “a disaster.” 

Ida Nudel 1931-2021Credit: David Bachar

In Israel, she was identified with the far right. In 2005, she told the local paper Tel Aviv that she believed in a conspiracy theory regarding the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

“People who kill come out after seven years and start a family. If he [Rabin’s assassin Yigal Amir] didn’t commit murder – and I believe he did not because it’s all a lie –  and even if they believe he did commit murder, it must be understood that 10 years have gone by, and he should be allowed to start a family,” she told the paper.

Nudel also warned against the withdrawal from Gaza. “In the end there will be one state here called Palestine. After the disengagement, which will lead us to catastrophe, some of us will become Muslim, some will become Christian and those who stay here will flee. All this I know from history, from which it may be learned that every time a high culture fights a low culture, the low culture wins. They have commitment, they have a dream. We once had a dream, and we no longer do,” she said,

“If you ask me whether Israel today is the country I hoped to come to, I’ll tell you the truth, no,” she told the paper. They don’t call me a Judovska here, but I know there are some people who would be happy to see me leave,” she said.  

Nudel lived in Rehovot and Karmei Yosef. A street was named after her in the town of Mazkeret Batya near Rehovot.

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