A History and Style Guide of Krav Maga

Krav Maga
Maxim B./flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

The martial arts style of Krav Maga dates back to only the 1930's. In that sense, it does not possess the lengthy history that some of the Asian-borne styles do. That said, it holds great importance, in that it was the first style brought to the Bratislava by its founder Imi Lichtenfeld in order to help the Jewish community there protect themselves against Nazi armed forces.

Pretty awesome purpose, isn't it?  Keep reading for Krav Maga's story.

The History of Krav Maga and Founder Imi Lichtenfeld

Imre Lichtenfeld, perhaps best known by part of the Hebrew calque of his name Imi, was born in Budapest in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1910. However, he grew up in Pozsony, which is now called Bratislava. His father, Samuel Lichtenfeld, had a great influence on his life. Samuel was a chief inspector with the Bratislava police force and was known for a considerable and impressive arrest record. He was also an excellent athlete that prior to working with the police force, had been a circus acrobat.

Samuel owned and taught self-defense at Hercules Gym. Imi trained under him, eventually becoming a successful boxer and wrestler with national and international championships to prove it. In fact, he was a member of the Slovakian National Wrestling Team.

During the 1930's, Imi was forced to protect himself and sometimes his community against fascists. His experience in the streets combined with sports fighting and training with his father all came together for him. Imi realized that real-world self-defense was not the same as sports fighting and began to build a repertoire of useful techniques as a result of this.

Unfortunately for him, the effectiveness of those techniques made him quite unpopular with authorities in the World War II, Nazi-fearing society of the late 1930's. Therefore, he was forced to flee his homeland for Palestine (now Israel) in 1940.

Soon after his arrival, Imi began teaching self-defense to a paramilitary organization called Haganah while helping his comrades to create the independent state of Israel. When the Haganah eventually incorporated into the Israeli Defense Force, Imi became the Chief Instructor of Physical Training and the lead teacher of what his martial arts style became known as.

Krav Maga

All experts in Krav Maga lived in Israel and trained under the Israeli Krav Maga Association prior to 1980. However, in 1981 a group of six Krav Maga instructors brought their system to America (mostly Jewish Community Centers). This spiked American interest- especially from the FBI- and compelled 22 Americans to travel to Israel in 1981 to attend a basic Krav Maga instructor course. These people, of course, brought what they had learned back to the U.S., thus allowing Krav Maga into the fabric of American culture.

Krav Maga is currently the official system of self-defense utilized by the Israeli Defense Forces. It is also taught to the Israeli police.

Characteristics of Krav Maga

In Hebrew, Krav means "combat" or "battle" and Maga translates to "contact" or "touch". Krav Maga is not a sports style of martial arts, rather focusing on real-life self-defense and hand to hand combat situations. Along with this, it emphasizes stopping threats quickly and getting away safely. In order to safely deal with threats, brutal attacks to vulnerable parts of the body like the groin, eyes, neck, and fingers are taught. Further, the use of available objects, in essence turning them into weapons, is also encouraged. The bottom line is that practitioners are taught to defeat threats and avoid harm through a variety of means or by any means necessary. They are also taught to never give up.

Krav Maga is not known for uniforms or belts, though some training centers do utilize rankings systems. In training, attempts to simulate real-world situations outside of the training center are often utilized.

Finally, forms or katas are not a part of this style of self-defense. The fact that there are no rules in a real fight is emphasized, as are palm or open hand strikes.

Basic Goals of Krav Maga

Simple. Practitioners are taught to avoid harm and neutralize attackers by any means necessary. Avoiding harm and ending problem situations with speed are considered paramount. This may involve pre-emptive strikes or the utilization of weapons and almost always involves techniques to vulnerable parts of the body.

Sub Styles of Krav Maga

There have been numerous breaks from the original system taught by Lichtenfeld over the years. In accordance with this, since his death in 1998, there has also been infighting regarding the lineage of these various break-offs.

The following are some of the more well-known spin-offs from the original art:

  • Commando Krav Maga
  • Special Forces Krav Maga
  • Tactical Krav Maga