It is a legacy of the latter half of the Brezhnev era and the tenure of Yuri Andropov as head of the KGB that Soviet anti-Semitism is worse than at any time since the closing years of the Stalin period. Evidence abounds in at least three areas.
First, Soviet media, thoroughly censored by an agency responsible to the Council of Ministers and the KGB, are suffused with anti-Semitic content. So frequently does such material appear - in hundreds of books and articles, in children's literature, in television programs, in publications for such diverse groups as the Academy of Sciences and the railway workers' union - that an anti-Semitic media campaign can be said to exist.
A second aspect of Soviet anti-Semitism that has intensified in a systematic manner during the last 10 years is anti-Jewish discrimination in university admissions. So precipitous has been the decline in Jewish enrollment that it cannot be attributed to emigration, the aging of the Soviet Jewish population, or any other ''natural'' factor. Published Soviet statistics show a greater than 40 percent decline in the number of Jewish university students from 1969 to 1976 .
A third component of contemporary Soviet anti-Semitism is ongoing and intensified repression of those forces that have sustained Jewish identity over the centuries - the Jewish religion, the Hebrew language, and Jewish culture.
It is true that restrictions are placed on the observance of all religions in the Soviet Union, but those applied to Soviet Jews are especially severe. Alone among the recognized religious groups in the USSR, Soviet Jews have no functioning seminary for the training of clergy, no publications, no national organization, and no regular ties with coreligionists abroad.
The few state-sponsored Yiddish theater groups, created for domestic and foreign propaganda purposes, perform only old-fashioned Yiddish selections of little relevance to contemporary Soviet Jewry. Even so, their engagements in cities with large Jewish populations are severely restricted.
Any number of Soviet domestic and foreign objectives might be served by implementation of an anti-Jewish campaign.
Domestically, state-sponsored anti-Semitism is consistent with a long Russian tradition of anti-Jewish state policy dating from the 16th-century reign of Ivan the Terrible. This historic aspect complements a contemporary surge of Russian nationalism within the dominant Soviet ethnic group. Increasingly alienated by Marxist-Leninist cant, Russians are exploring a variety of ethnocentric philosophies ranging from the relatively moderate position of Solzhenitsyn to right-wing extremism resembling German national socialism. Solzhenitsyn's views aside, a common element of all such trends is strong anti-Jewish sentiment. Anti-Semitism thus serves a unifying function among (clandestinely) politically active and divided Russians.
Other ethnic groups, many of whom are offended by Kremlin control over their native lands, can also be assuaged by Soviet anti-Semitism. The removal of Jews from positions of influence or prestige provides new opportunities for local non-Russians. From Moscow's viewpoint, the public denigration of Jews renders contact between Jews and other ethnic groups difficult to sustain. A ''divide and conquer'' strategy has practical value in the multinational Soviet state.
Anti-Semitism is also consistent with the Soviet goals of discrediting all religions and intimidating Soviet Jews into assimilation.
Anti-Semitism also serves the totalitarian nature of the Soviet state. Despite the rejection of Marxism-Leninism by many in the Soviet Union, the Communist Party continues to claim a monopoly on Soviet truth and justice. It is this need for monopoly, a sort of ideological insecurity, that motivates the crude attacks on Jewish religion and tradition.
In the implementation of its foreign policy, the Soviet Union may consider its anti-Jewish policies useful in currying favor among Arabs and other Muslims. The perceived need for ingratiation with the Islamic world may have been reinforced both by the Soviet invasion and occupation of Muslim Afghanistan and the reality of Soviet exclusion from a position of consequence in the Arab-Israeli dispute.
Zionism can be - and is - invoked by the Soviet Union as a scapegoat for the numerous problems encountered by developing countries. Adding Zionism to a list that already includes US imperialism, racism, fascism, and bourgeois nationalism may find admirers in some third-world countries and consequent appreciation for the Soviet Union.
Anti-Semitism can also be intensified to reflect Soviet perceptions of Soviet-American or Soviet-Western relations. Because it is Western countries that are most offended by anti-Semitism, such bigotry can be escalated by the USSR to ''punish'' the West for its purported hostility to the Soviet Union. Supporting a theory of relationship is the fact that the marked decline in the number of Soviet Jews permitted to emigrate from the USSR in recent years (after some 250,000 Jews were allowed to leave between 1971 and 1982) has run parallel to a general deterioration in US-Soviet relations.
It is impossible for any outside observer to determine which of these objectives have been the primary factors in stimulating the current anti-Semitic campaign. However, it can be said with certainty that a major role in implementing the campaign was fulfilled by Yuri Andropov during his 15-year tenure as head of the KGB. Those who abhor bigotry and value human rights cannot be encouraged by his accession to even greater power as general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.