ANATOLY Shcharansky's visit to the United States this week and his meeting with President Reagan are reminders of the importance of persistent -- if not always dramatic -- pressure on the Soviet Union to allow Jews to emigrate. Appropriately, the President did not use the occasion to crow over the release of Mr. Shcharansky and berate the Soviet Union. Mr. Reagan also carefully avoided meeting last month with Yelena Bonner, in the US on medical leave until June 2, on the theory that it might curb prospects for the release of her husband, Andrei Sakharov.
Restraining himself from further branding of Moscow these days as the ``evil empire,'' the President is letting the Shcharanskys of the world eloquently state the case themselves for continued Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union and for the wider cause of human rights.
Mr. Shcharansky, a founder of the Moscow Helsinki Group, endured eight years of imprisonment, including constant interrogation and threats of death after being convicted of treason in 1978. Yet, as he told a mammoth cheering crowd of New Yorkers earlier this week, he knew he was not alone: ``All the resources of a superpower cannot isolate a man who hears the voice of freedom. . . .''
Many more Soviet Jews would like to leave. About one-fifth of the estimated 2 million still in the Soviet Union have asked for invitations from their relatives abroad, the first step in applying to emigrate, according to Israeli sources. Some 15,000 who have applied for exit visas have been turned down.
The greatest increase in the number of Soviet Jews released occurred under d'etente. The step-up began in the late '60s and peaked in 1979 when 51,000 were released. Only 15,768 Soviet Jews have been released since 1981, when Ronald Reagan took office. By contrast, under Jimmy Carter, who put a strong emphasis on human rights from the start -- with the added congressional pressure of the Jackson-Vanik amendment of the mid '70's which tied Jewish emigration to US-Soviet trade -- 118,393 were released from 1977 through 1980.
The Soviets clearly do not soften their stance on emigration without expecting something in return. American Jewish leaders say increased trade has probably been a key inducement over the years. In any event, Mr. Shcharansky's visit here is a reminder of the merits of keeping the pressure on.
US presidents for at least the last 15 years have conveyed the clear message to Moscow that there will be no significant improvement in relations between the two nations unless basic human rights, including the emigration of Soviet Jews, are observed.
The Soviets made an emigration and human rights commitment in Helsinki. The West needs continually to hold them to their promise.