VISITORS from the West have smuggled everything from warm clothes to musical instruments into the Soviet Union to try to make life more bearable for Jewish dissidents there. Many Russian Jews have been harassed, jailed, or denied permission to emigrate. A few of the more prominent Soviet Jews, such as Anatoly Shcharansky, have been released within the last year. But by and large Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union has slowed to a trickle during the '80s. In 1986 only 914 Jews were allowed to leave; 1979 stands as the peak year, with 51,320 'emigr'es.
Only a major improvement in US-Soviet relations appears likely to get the numbers moving again. The number of Soviet Jews allowed to leave has generally gone up or down as United States-Soviet relations have improved or worsened.
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev is keenly aware of the public relations benefits of easing pressures on dissidents. His government recently announced an intensive review of all sentences against those convicted of anti-Soviet activities; and much was made of the return from the US in December of 50 Soviet 'emigr'es.
But Jewish emigration is notably absent from the glasnost agenda of Soviet problems openly debated. Moscow insists that most Jews wanting to rejoin their families in the West - the permissible rationale for leaving - have gone; those not allowed to leave, such as physicist Andrei Sakharov and mathematician Alexander Ioffe, have been exposed to secret information, Moscow argues, which must be safeguarded.
Mr. Gorbachev, who admits to some struggles with an entrenched bureaucracy, may also be under internal pressure to tighten emigration. But the key reason for the '80s slowdown could well be the lack of visible gains in trade or arms control for the '70s Jewish exodus.
By Israel's estimate, some 400,000 Jews in the Soviet Union still want to leave; 11,000 of them are ``refusedniks,''already turned down.
A new Soviet law may make it even harder for Russian Jews to leave. Invitations from abroad must now come from close relatives, not just distant relatives as before. A bar against religious and ethnic discrimination could keep Jewish citizens from favored treatment.
The West should keep steady diplomatic pressure on the Soviet Union to heed the human rights pledges made in the 1975 Helsinki Accords.
But the Soviets, who have shocked the West with their intention to be host to a human rights conference in Moscow soon, could also use some inducement. The US needs a more flexible policy.
The recent decision to lift the US ban on oil and gas technology exports to the Soviet Union is a step. But the US should also carefully review the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment. One clause requires a US president to certify that he has received a promise to allow free emigration from a nation such as the Soviet Union before that nation can qualify for most-favored-nation trade status; 152 countries, including China, already have that status.
The clause is unrealistic and was nearly deleted under the Carter administration; it should be removed now. The curbs on trade would remain intact; the criteria for removing them would simply shift from Soviet assurances on emigration to actual improvement. That bit of juggling could make a big difference.