Setting aside the law

British Jonathan Hasson and Australian Ryan Shandler speak about going from law school to a combat unit in the IDF.

JONATHAN HASSON (left) and Ryan Shandler (photo credit: IDF)
JONATHAN HASSON (left) and Ryan Shandler
(photo credit: IDF)
While most law graduates are concerned about starting their careers in the legal world, Jonathan Hasson from London and Ryan Shandler from Melbourne decided to swap their law books for guns and army uniforms, putting their careers on hold to serve on the front line in the IDF’s Nahal Brigade.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post on Thursday from their bases on the Gaza border, Hasson and Shandler shared their experiences of serving in combat units, together with their motivations and their plans for the future.
Hasson, 24, is part of the IDF’s Mahal program, which allows young Jews from around the world to volunteer in the army, while 25-year-old Shandler was called up after making aliya but decided to extend his mandatory army service to include a stint in a combat unit.
Asked why he voluntarily left his home to fight in the IDF immediately after graduating from Nottingham University with a master’s degree in law, Hasson said the strong Zionist ethos his family instilled in him growing up influenced his choice.
“When I got to the end of my MA, I decided I wanted to do this before I started my career in law,” he said.
“I came because I felt connected to Israel as the Jewish state and the Jewish homeland.”
Hasson added that he had cousins who fought in the IDF and it was his duty to do the same. “I felt I should serve because I was capable of doing so,” he said.
Shandler, who made aliya immediately after completing his international criminal law degree at Melbourne University, said he was called up to serve in the IDF for six months, but decided to stay longer and chose to serve on the front line because there was a shortage of combat soldiers.
“It’s something that if you can do, you should,” he said. “I felt I had a choice between being a lawyer and serving in a combat unit. It was a hard decision, but in the end, I thought – lawyers are a dime a dozen, but there aren’t enough combat soldiers.”
From their different bases on the Gaza border, Hasson and Shandler described some of their experiences during the past week as rocket fire from the Gaza Strip intensified amid IDF strikes on terrorist operations in the coastal territory.
“It’s been tense, but I don’t think it’s very different for me or for us than for anyone else,” Shandler said of the rocket attacks, adding that like civilians in the region, he and his fellow soldiers also had to run for shelter when the rockets fell.
The Australian joked that he had to tell his family “a lot of lies about what’s going on” to lessen their worry, adding that the situation seems very different for those who experience it firsthand than for those, like his family back home, who have to rely on foreign news reports.
“The reporting [about the rocket fire] is very different in the rest of the world than here in Israel,” he said.
“Here, when a rocket falls, it’s part of our daily routine. And that’s very sad – no country should have to have rocket fire as part of their daily routine.”
Hasson agreed that the view from the front line provides a different perspective on the attacks, noting that it takes about 12 seconds from the launch of a rocket in Gaza until it hits near his base in Israel.
“We know there is a possibility that our unit could be ordered into Gaza if there is a ground offensive,” he said. “Even though we are trained, it adds to the intensity to know that we could be in Gaza tomorrow.”
Both men said the experience of serving in a combat unit was very different from what they had imagined.
“Growing up in Australia, I’d never seen a soldier before I came to Israel,” Shandler noted.
Hasson said the combat training he received when he first joined the unit was the hardest thing he had ever done, adding that his ideological commitment to Zionism helped motivate him through the most difficult times. He praised the Nahal Brigade for looking after lone soldiers (those without close relatives in the country), describing the native English-speakers in the unit as a members of a tight-knit community that supported each other.
Both soldiers said that their experience on the front lines has been life-changing.
Hasson said he plans to return to the UK after his IDF service and train as a barrister, but does not rule out making aliya in the future, adding that his family is also considering a move to the Jewish state.
Shandler noted that his stint in the IDF had led him to reevaluate his life, and that he was not sure whether he would return to law.
The Australian said his experiences had made him reflect on what he had learned while studying for his international criminal law degree, particularly on a thesis he wrote about the UN’s Goldstone Report on Operation Cast Lead.
“You don’t realize how messy war is, how messy conflict is,” he explained. “It’s very easy to judge from afar, but when you are here, you realize that it is a different world and that soldiers do not operate in a vacuum.”
Shandler added that he realized the laws of war were not a “burden” on soldiers but “regulate our behavior in a positive way.”
“Israel operates with such restraint,” he said. “I’m very proud of that.”