‘Dream Fulfilled,’ Ida Nudel Is Welcomed in Israel

Times Staff Writer

Ida Nudel, the refusenik whose 16-year struggle to leave the Soviet Union made her an inspiration and a symbol of hope to thousands of other Soviet Jews, arrived to an enthusiastic welcome in Israel on Thursday and said: “My dream is fulfilled. I am home.”

Nudel, known as the “guardian angel” of the refusenik movement for the emotional and material help she gave to imprisoned Soviet Jews, arrived with her pet collie on a flight from Moscow on Los Angeles industrialist Armand Hammer’s private jetliner.

“For me, it is the moment of my life. I am on the soil of my people,” the diminutive, 56-year-old dissident said in halting English.


“A few hours ago, I was almost a slave in Moscow,” she added, the tears welling in her eyes, “and now I am a free person in my own country.”

Nudel arrived to a red-carpet welcome, with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and dozens of other Israeli officials waiting on the tarmac to greet her. Actress Jane Fonda, who for several years has been campaigning to win Nudel’s release, was also there along with her husband, California state Assemblyman Tom Hayden.

When the doors of Hammer’s red, white and blue Boeing 727 swung open on the tarmac of Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion Airport at 8:45 p.m., Nudel’s sister, Elana Fridman, rushed up the steps to greet her. It was their first meeting in 16 years, since Fridman emigrated to Israel.

The sisters held a brief but emotional reunion in the plane and when they re-emerged applause broke out among the several hundred well-wishers clustered on the runway. Nudel was escorted down a red carpet to shake hands with Shamir, Peres and other members of the government.

“You have come home to your land, to the Jewish state,” Shamir said in a ceremony in which Nudel was presented an Israeli citizenship card. “You have come to us on a plane direct from Moscow and let us hope that many more planes will arrive, filled with hundreds of thousands of our people from the Soviet Union.”

Nudel held her new identity card over her head so that a crowd of several thousand people watching the ceremony over closed-circuit television in another part of the airport could see.

For a moment, she appeared to be oblivious of the commotion around her as she turned the card over and over in her hands, the tears again welling in her eyes as she stared at its light blue cover. She quickly recovered her composure, however, as first Shamir and then Peres addressed her.

“We must thank the Russians for what they did. But at the same time we must say it is not enough. It must continue,” Peres said, referring to the 380,000 Jews that Israel estimates want to leave the Soviet Union.

May Signal Policy Change

“In my personal case, we have won,” Nudel said, adding that she thought her release, 16 years after she applied for permission to emigrate, may signal a “small change” in Soviet policy toward the refusenik movement whose aspirations she had come to personify.

However, she noted that many others who are not famous want to leave and she vowed to devote all of her energies toward helping to get them out.

Before appearing at an airport news conference, Nudel spoke by telephone with Secretary of State George P. Shultz, who arrives in Israel today for a three-day visit. She also received congratulatory telegrams from British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and French Premier Jacques Chirac. She will meet with Shultz on Sunday.

Hammer, chairman of Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum, and Fonda briefly spoke at the news conference.

“I never believed they would let Ida out. . . . She was (the refusenik) most hated by the KGB,” Fonda said before embracing and kissing Nudel on both cheeks.

Near-pandemonium prevailed during the news conference as Israeli cameramen shouted at and almost assaulted fellow photographers blocking their view of Nudel. The uproar drowned out much of the official welcoming speeches. When Jewish Agency Chairman Arye Dulzin rose to speak, Israeli journalists booed.

Fonda appeared to be taken aback by the spectacle, but Nudel, clasping her sister’s hand, smiled happily throughout this introduction to the new life awaiting her in Israel.

Nudel is the latest in a series of prominent refuseniks allowed to leave the Soviet Union as part of Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s efforts to improve his country’s image in the West. In the past month, the Soviets have granted exit visas to half a dozen prominent refuseniks.

Before leaving the Soviet Union, Nudel was quoted as saying that she thought her release was timed by Moscow to improve the atmosphere before the expected U.S.-Soviet summit.

Israeli analysts also see a link between the more liberal Kremlin attitude toward Jewish emigration and efforts to win Israeli approval for Soviet participation in the Middle East peace process.

Last month, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze met with Peres at the United Nations and proposed that Israel and the Soviet Union set up diplomatic interest sections in each other’s capitals. Peres, holding out for a resumption of full diplomatic relations, said he rejected this.

Four prominent Soviet Jewish activists, including Natan Sharansky, who emigrated to Israel last year after spending nine years in Soviet prisons, met with Shamir and Peres earlier this week to urge them to delay normalizing relations with Moscow until all Jews who wish to leave are given permission to do so.

Nudel, who is single and whose only relatives are her sister and a nephew in Israel, has been variously described as the “mother,” the “guardian angel” and the “heart and soul” of the refusenik movement because of her tireless efforts on behalf of other Jewish activists in the Soviet Union.

She was an inspiration to Sharansky during his imprisonment, sending him smuggled packages of vitamins and letters urging him not to give up hope.

Her own troubles with Soviet authorities began in 1971, when she was dismissed from her job as an economist after she applied to emigrate. Seven years later, she was convicted of “malicious hooliganism” and sentenced to internal exile in Siberia after placing a sign outside her Moscow apartment that said, “KGB, Give Me My Visa.”

She spent four years in Siberia and, denied permission to return to Moscow upon her release from internal exile in 1982, settled in Soviet Moldavia.

Throughout her ordeal, she worked on behalf of fellow dissidents, writing them letters, sending packages to those in jail and, as she told reporters Thursday, telling them that “your moment too will come.”