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Women in US Dodge a Bullet  

“If this bill had passed, the stage would have been set for women to have to be part of the military”


potentially catastrophic law that could have led to women being drafted into the United States military has been averted for the second year in a row — due in no small part to the efforts of Agudath Israel.

When the United States abolished its military draft 50 years ago this month, it simply stopped calling up conscripts, never bothering to permanently end it. But to maintain the ability to reinstate the draft in the event of a national emergency, the US armed forces still require all 18-year-old men to register with the Selective Service system.

That requirement is limited to men — women have never been required to register. But with the blurring of the genders slowly infiltrating society, a bipartisan majority of lawmakers have been pushing to expand the requirement to females as well. For the second year in a row, the House and Senate voted to include the provision in the mammoth Pentagon budget. But Agudath Israel’s Washington representative, Rabbi Abba Cohen, has been a pivotal voice in pulling together a coalition to prevent it.

“It could very well have been passed and enacted,” Rabbi Cohen said. “It was a very distinct — maybe even more than a distinct — possibility. We basically dodged a bullet.”

Just days before the record $858 billion defense bill was signed by President Biden last week, it contained language that would have forced women to register if a draft were reinstated. This raised concerns among Jewish groups and community leaders as to where that could have potentially led. On guard because the same thing had happened the year before, Rabbi Cohen invested months of work, advocating and pigeonholing lawmakers, until it was taken out.

In Israel, the parshah of the female draft was a long and painful one, with the Chazon Ish famously taking the position that it was a yeihareg ve’al yaavor. A compromise was finally reached that exempted frum girls.

Historically, the United States has invoked military drafts on an ad hoc basis. Whenever hostilities broke out, Congress would authorize the president to call up a certain number of people. When World War II concluded in 1945, the draft remained in effect as the US faced down the Soviet Union everywhere from East Asia and Europe to Florida’s doorstep in Cuba and across South America.

Figuring that an end to the draft would sap antiwar protesters of a cause, President Nixon abolished it as of January 27, 1973. But the military kept collecting registration cards in the event it was reinstated.

“We have a voluntary military, but this is all about the future,” noted Rabbi Cohen, who has been Agudah’s DC delegate for 34 years. “The fact is that there’s been no serious effort on Capitol Hill to get rid of it permanently. It can be brought back if there is a military conflict or a national emergency. If this bill had passed, the stage would have been set for women to have to be part of the military.”

The effort to include women in the draft began in 1978, when President Jimmy Carter put forward the Equal Rights Amendment, a proposed addition to the US Constitution that sought to eliminate legal distinctions between women and men. The proposal failed to be ratified by two-thirds of the states and so never became constitutional law. Rabbi Moshe Sherer, then the leader of Agudah, raised the alarm at the time about what it portended for a religious lifestyle.

Although the ERA effort failed, Congress over the years gradually passed many laws that undercut the traditional view of women. That culminated, in a sense, when a bipartisan majority of lawmakers tacked onto the 2022 annual defense bill a provision requiring women also to register for Selected Service. Rabbi Cohen joined a coalition of traditional conservatives and religious right figures to eliminate it from the final bill.

“It was quite tense,” he recalled. “But there are still a lot of voices in society who are very uneasy with ending the separation of genders.”

The effort succeeded. When it came up again in the 2023 bill, only the Senate included it; the House didn’t. And the final bill stripped it completely.

Rabbi Cohen is confident that Congress will leave the issue alone for the next couple of years.

“It’s not unusual that after you try twice, you regroup to come up with new arguments,” Rabbi Cohen said, “but I’d be surprised with this Congress if it were to come back soon.”


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 943)

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