The History of Krav Maga

Krav Maga Founder Imi Lichtenfeld

Krav Maga history - Imi Lichtenfeld, Founder 

Krav Maga history begins with the founder of the system - Imi Lichtenfeld. Imi Lichtenfeld was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1910. His family soon moved to Bratislava, Slovakia, where Imi grew up. His father, Samuel Lichtenfeld, had experience boxing and wrestling. Samuel was a police detective and held the leading record of arrests as well as serving as the police force's self-defense instructor.

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Samuel Lichtenfeld also opened up a fitness gym that provided training in boxing, wrestling, and Judo - a very rare type of facility in the early 20th century. Imi began training at his father's gym focusing on both sport combat and self-defense training. In the 1930s, Central Europe was starting to fall to Fascist power. Anti-semitism was spreading rapidly, and Jewish people were regularly targeted for discrimination and violent attacks.

Imi began to organize small groups of Jewish people to form an underground defense organization that patrolled the streets of his community and defended Jews who were attacked by Fascist thugs. Imi gained a significant amount of real fighting experience, and learned to distinguish between the sport fighting of wrestling and boxing, and real street fighting - which often involved knives, sticks, and multiple attackers.

In addition to physical skills, Imi had a very analytical mind and was able to to assess what strategies were necessary to effectively and quickly dominate a violent attack and terminate the attacker's capability to continue to fight. In 1939 World War II broke out with the German invasion of Poland, and Imi joined the Czech​ Free Legion and fought on the British side as a combat soldier. This experience further helped Imi to apply and test his system with even more complex and threatening situations.

At the end of World War II, Imi moved to Jewish Palestine, the region that would later comprise Israel. At the time, this region was a British protectorate. After facing the Nazi threat, the Jewish survivors were now faced with the threat of Arab extremists who were violently opposed to the presence of the Jewish religion, and Jewish people in that region. Israel was not yet a state and there was no Israel Defense Force.

The defense of the Jewish people fell to the underground Jewish Defense Leagues known as the Haganah (Hebrew for "defense"), the Palyam (Plugot Yam - Hebrew for "sea companies), and the Palmach (Plugot Mahatz - Hebrew for "strike companies.")​

Imi Lichtenfeld was recognized for his extensive knowledge and fighting capability, and was placed in charge of training the Jewish Defense Leagues in hand-to-hand combat as well as unconventional warfare tactics such as stealth maneuvers, sentry removal, ​and knife and stick fighting. At this point, the training was referred to as Kapap - the Hebrew acronym for "krav panim el panim," which means face-to-face combat.

​Founding of the State of Israel

Underground fighting carried on relentlessly for years, until finally - on May 14, 1948, the United Nations officially declared the creation of the Stat​e of Israel and the Israeli flag bearing the Star of David was raised for the first time. Not even one week passed beforeIsrael was attacked on all fronts - from the North, the East, and the South.

The armies of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt marched with the goal to eliminate the state of Israel and get rid of the Jewish people in the region. After suffering the loss of over 6 million Jews at the hand of the Nazis during the Holocaust, the Jewish people were determined to put an end to this history of targeted annihilation. The people of Israel fought hard for their new future, and within several days, defeated their enemies and forced them to retreat back to their own territories.

Immediately following these hostilities, the Israel Defense Force was officially established. Imi Lichtenfeld was immediately assigned as Chief Commander of the IDF's hand-to-hand combat and physical fitness division. Krav Maga history continued with formal recognition as the official training system of an entire military.  This system of self-defense, which was now injected with even more real combat experience and had been put to the test through years of violent conflict, was developed into a system now officially called Krav Maga - Hebrew for "contact combat."

Krav Maga was officially designated as the Israeli Defense Force's self-defense system. Krav Maga would be put to the test many more times in violent conflict and war, and would continue to evolve into the modern and battle-tested system it is today. Imi officially retired from the IDF in 1968, after 20 years of service. He founded the Israeli Krav Maga Association and pursued his goal of spreading Krav Maga around the world so that every man, woman, and child could learn a system that would help them survive if confronted with violence.

the spread of krav maga

Imi Lichtenfeld and his leading instructors went about expanding Krav Maga to other free countries. In the late 1970's, Imi and his instructors travelled to the U.S. to do Krav Maga demonstrations for Jewish community groups. Krav Maga was recognized by prominent members of the American Jewish community as a great vehicle for developing young people as well as connecting with brothers and sisters in Israel.

In 1981, a group of Americans were invited to participate in the first 6 week long international instructor course under the direct supervision of Imi Lichtenfeld. American businessman Daniel Abraham sponsored an American delegation of 23 Americans to attend the course. Alan Feldman, Rick Blitstein, and Darren Levine stood out in this group due to their performance during the course and previous martial arts training. The three served as American ambassadors for the Israeli Association, and Alan Feldman accepted the Eastern Region, Rick Blitstein the Central Region, and Darren Levine the Western Region.

Upon return to the U.S. as certified instructors, demand for Krav Maga instruction was surprisingly high. Krav Maga went from a virtually unknown system to being taught in hundreds of locations in the U.S., as well as being used by (as of 2015) over 500 Western law-enforcement and military groups.

Attempts to trademark and legally own the term "Krav Maga" as well as the "Kuff Mem" logo and requiring that anyone using these acquire a license and pay a fee to an American organization was the cause of disagreement that led to lawsuits and fragmentation of Krav Maga in the U.S. into several different organizations.

It is fortunate that Imi lived to see his system spread to other free countries - Israel's allies and supporters. Imi had a saying. "Eventually, they'll all come my way." This prediction predated the "Reality-Based Self-Defense"​ movement in the United States by 25 years. Imi didn't live to see some of the fractures within the community of his senior civilian Krav Maga instructors - most of which have nothing to do with Krav Maga principles, teaching, or technique.

The saddest irony to this conflict is that a large number of enemies of Israel, the Jewish people, and Western Democracy would like nothing more than the entire destruction of all of the instructors, their students - and Israel.

Imi Lichtenfeld passed away in 1998, but his legacy carries on. He stated his vision and reason for creating Krav Maga with simplicity, and elegance: "so that one may walk in peace."

Recent Krav Maga history - the idf today

Krav Maga history continues as the system is living and evolving. Krav Maga is still the official, and only system taught to all military groups, including the Special Forces Division. Contrary to several claims that have been made by civilian instructors attempting to profit from Krav maga's success, the term "Krav Maga" is not a generic term including many different types or styles of self-defense. 

Nir Maman (on the left) during extreme close quarters Krav Maga training with other CTS Counter Terror Instructors.

As time has progressed and new methods and tactics have evolved to attack the Israeli people, Krav Maga has evolved to adapt to the changing face of the battlefield. The unique part of Krav Maga is that it evolves at a faster rate than other systems, because the only reason for it to exist is to work.

Krav Maga is used in conflict every single day ​by the Israeli Defense Forces, police, and security groups. The moment the threat changes on the battlefield or the streets, the change is immediately registered and updates are made to the system and training methods.

Krav Maga in the IDF is governed by two official bodies. The first is Wingate, the Israeli National Institute for Physical Fitness Education. The Wingate Institute is a large campus that sites on the shore of Netanya, North of Tel Aviv. The IDF has a small section on that campus allocated to it. This seciton is called Bahad 8 (Bahad is the acronym for Basis hadraha, which means training base).​

Bahad 8 is responsible for all Krav Maga training as it relates to the general army. This is the location that all soldiers destined to become Krav Maga instructors receive their certification. Krav Maga instructors in the IDF are not combat soldiers - they complete basic training and then are transferred to Bahad 8 to undergo a 2 month Krav Maga instructor course. After successful completion of this course, the new instructor is assigned either to a regular combat battalion or one of the IDF's Special Forces Units.

Given the responsibilities IDF Krav Maga instructors have and the fact that the instructor certification course is only 2 months long, candidates interested in becoming Krav Maga instructors in the IDF must already possess a previous background and interest in martial arts.

The second governing authority for Krav Maga in the IDF is the Special Forces Division Counter-Terror and Special Operations School - the CTS (Betsepher L'Lochama B'terror, or LOTAR for short). This unit is situated ​in a classified base located somewhere in Central Israel.

Nir Maman (on the left) in the Israeli Special Forces Counter Terror School Krav Maga Training room.

The Counter-terror and Special Operations School is responsible for all training, certification, and Research and Development as it relates to the Special Forces. The CTS is in charge of training all the IDF's Special Forces and Special Operation units in counter-terror warfare, urban warfare, hostage rescue, tactical shooting, and Krav Maga as it relates to the specific work of the special units.

The Krav Maga instructors at CTS, although governed administratively by Wingate, are under the command of the Special Forces Division. The instructors here in addition to completing their basic training and Krav Maga instructor certification course must also complete a counter-terror certification course (course Lochem Lotar)

The Krav Maga training the special units receive at CTS is divided into two sections. The first section the SF recruits receive while attending the CTS for their Counter-terror certification training. The second section is advanced specialized training the units receive if their work requires the use of specialized empty handed tactics and strategies.

The Krav Maga training Special Forces recruits undergo while at the Counter-terror School is among the hardest and most grueling training they receive while going through their warrior certification process. Israel is in a unique situation with its military. Given the nature of Israel's threatening environment and relatively small population, military service is mandatory for all Israeli citizens. Males must serve three years (four years if selected for Special Forces) and females must serve two years.

In every single military force around the world, soldiers must first serve in a regular combat unit for at least four to five years before being allowed to undergo selection for Special Forces. In Israel, given the circumstances and limited budget and service time, the army has only three to four years to make total use of the soldier.

In Israel, a new soldier can be selected for the Special Forces without previous regular service. The selection process begins during the draftee's last year of high school, if he passes the aptitude and extensive psychological testing. ​Candidates who pass screening are invited to a selection phase tryout. If the candidate successfully completes the selection phase, he will be assigned to a special unit and begin his training.

Special Forces training starts with four months of basic infantry training, followed by two months of advanced combat training, followed by the unit-specific Special Forces Warrior Certification training that will last anywhere from an additional year to two years.

Nir Maman training recruits from the ISF S-13 unit (Israeli Naval Commandos) in the use of the Mini Uzi at the Counter Terror School.

This time constraint puts training in a very specific structure. For example, with Krav Maga training, the army does​ not have the luxury of time to train a soldier to become a proficient martial artist. IDF soldier go into training at the age of 18 and by age 20, they will be certified warriors sent into the field to fight fact-to-face with Hezbollah, Hamas, or Islamic Jihad terrorists that average 28-48 years of age and already have years of fighting experience behind them.

The IDF is in a position where it has very little time to train its soldiers and must train a 20-year-old to the point that he can survive any encounter he faces under any circumstances. These are two issues that are specifically addressed and targeted in the principles of Krav Maga.

Krav Maga is a system that was developed to conform to the individual as opposed to the individual having to conform to the system like many martial arts systems. The focus of Krav Maga is to arm the individual with the necessary strategies and tactics to dominate and terminate a violent encounter in minimal time - using strategies and tactics that can be learned, adopted, and effectively implemented​ in a short period of time.

Nir Maman training U.S. Special Forces Units in Krav Maga at the ISF Counter Terror School.

The U.S. and many other allied Western military and police forces have been sending units to Israel regularly to learn and cross-train with Israeli units for years. Israel's reputation and experience in counter-terror and security has been regarded as second to none for two reasons.

First, there is no other country in the world that has faced suicidal terror attacks on a daily basis and has faced such attacks since the first day the country was founded. Second, there is no other country in the world that faces the threat of losing a country and people if it can't mitigate those certain attacks.

Krav Maga as practiced by IDF Special Forces has over 70 years of refinement in a violent, high-stakes environment. All of the principles and practice must stay tied to reality, and must be updated to deal with new threats and tactics. ​Understanding the real history of Krav Maga and ensuring your training methods are realistic and consistent with the highest level of Krav Maga tactics and principles are key if you want to have the greatest chance of surviving the kind of threats the IDF faces on a daily basis.

The real military Krav Maga training - as practiced in the IDF Special Forces is now available to anyone of good character who is interested in learning.

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Nir Maman
 

Nir is a veteran of the Israeli Special Forces and served as an Operational Team Leader on the Counter Terror Unit, and as a Section Commander and Lead Counter Terror Warfare and Krav Maga Instructor at the Israeli Special Forces Counter Terror School. He was in charge of training all the ISF Hostage Rescue Units as well as all the U.S. Special Operation Units sent to Israel before deploying to combat zones.

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