SOMETHING remarkable is happening to the 2 million Jews of the Soviet Union. Seventy-two years after the revolution that was supposed to end Russian anti-Semitism - but instead intensified it - Soviet Jews are, at last, being granted fundamental rights. Perhaps most significant has been the change in the Soviets' long-term opposition to emigration from the USSR. In March, 4,200 Jews were allowed to leave. The emigration figures for April look even better, suggesting that this year the number of Jews leaving may exceed the record level of 51,000 of 1979. This is all the more notable when one considers that in the years just before Mikhail Gorbachev's ascension to power, the number of Jews permitted to leave annually hovered at about 1,000.
The increase in numbers is not the only sign that the situation of Soviet Jews has improved markedly during the era of glasnost. There are now 17 Jewish cultural centers operating in the country. Harassment of Hebrew school teachers has ended. A B'nai B'rith lodge has been chartered in Moscow. There are now no prisoners in Soviet jails who are there because of their activity promoting Jewish emigration.
This is not to say that life for Jews in the USSR is everything we would hope it to be. There are still about 650 refuseniks whose permits to emigrate have been denied because they once held security-related jobs. But there are indications that the Soviets may soon formulate a law that will end, once and for all, the practice of preventing the emigration of individuals who held a sensitive job 10 or even 20 years ago.
One thing is clear. There has been enough improvement in the lives of Soviet Jews to justify a positive response on our part.
That response should be a one-year waiver of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, the 1974 law that withholds trade credits and favorable tariff treatment for Soviet goods so long as the Soviets deny their citizens the right to emigrate. The Jackson-Vanik amendment was enacted by Congress to respond to a Soviet policy requiring would-be emigrants to pay a large head tax before leaving. It warned the Soviets that they could not expect trade concessions from the United States as long as they put impossible roadblocks in the way of emigration.
The amendment has largely accomplished its purpose. The Soviet government, which badly wants, and needs, expanded trade with the US, is responding to the pressure exerted by Jackson-Vanik when it allows 4,000 Jews a month to leave. Former Congressman Charles Vanik, who co-wrote the Jackson-Vanik law with then-Sen. Henry Jackson, says that today's climate is ``precisely the climate we anticipated when we wrote our law.''
He points out that the law included a waiver provision to allow the president to suspend Jackson-Vanik, on a year-by-year basis, if he concluded that a waiver would promote further emigration.
This does not require amending Jackson-Vanik. On the contrary, the waiver was included in the original law as a ``carrot'' to reward the Soviets if they improved their emigration policy. As Jackson put it in 1976, the waiver ``gives the President the legal authority he needs'' to make a ``gesture'' to the Soviets.
It's time to make that gesture. Waiving Jackson-Vanik for a one-year trial period will encourage the Soviet government to continue liberalizing its human rights policy. After all, the Soviets will know that if they don't continue their new emigration policy, their experience with US trade concessions will end after a single year (or even before if the president so chooses). It will strengthen the forces for reform in the USSR - and primarily Mikhail Gorbachev - by demonstrating that Soviet human rights improvements will be acknowledged and rewarded by the West.
In short, we have nothing to lose by waiving Jackson-Vanik for a year. The alternative - doing nothing - could lead to the shutting down of the gates we have now pried open. That should be the last thing any of us wants.