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 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.
The History of Krav Maga and its founder
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, 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
Neutralize the threat. The primary goal in Krav Maga is to neutralize your threat as quickly as possible. This overarching goal governs all the other principles of Krav Maga. Because your aim is to dominate and incapacitate your attacker as soon as possible, pretty much anything goes in Krav Maga. You can’t worry about fighting etiquette when your life is on the line. You do whatever you have to do to preserve your life.
Keep it simple. There aren’t katas or patterns in Krav Maga. Just strikes, holds, and blocks. Krav Maga was designed so that it could be put to use as soon as possible.
Simultaneous defense and attack. Many martial arts treat defensive and offensive moves as separate and discrete actions, e.g., first you block (defensive), then you kick when you find an opening (offensive). The downside of this approach is that it’s reactive and you typically just end up in a cycle of never-ending defensive movements. In Krav Maga, the fighter looks to combine an offensive movement with every defensive movement — he wants to disrupt the attack and simultaneously counterattack. For example, if an attacker goes for your throat, you’d not only try to deflect his attack, but also simultaneously counterattack by going for his eyes, groin, or throat. The goal is to neutralize your threat as quickly as possible.
Retzev, or continuous motion. Related to the principles of simultaneous defense and attack is retzev, a Hebrew word for “continuous motion.” David Kahn describes retzev as a “seamless explosion of violence,” in which the goal is to neutralize your attacker with a continuous series of aggressive defensive and offensive movements. As your attacker reacts to your counterattacks, you’ll respond with more punches, kicks, and headbutts until the attacker is no longer a threat. Retzev requires a fighter to work from instinct and not rely on a pre-set routine. A well-trained practitioner of Krav Maga will know how to react to any type of threat without hesitation.
Use of weapons of opportunity. You can easily incorporate firearms and knives into Krav Maga. Besides these traditional weapons, Krav Maga also teaches practitioners to improvise and use any object at their disposal as a weapon. Keys, pens, belts, and chairs can all be incorporated into Krav Maga techniques in order to neutralize your opponent as quickly as possible.
Weapon defense. Besides teaching students how to use weapons, Krav Maga also shows how to defend yourself from an armed attack.
Focus on vulnerable soft tissue and pressure points. A well-known principle of Krav Maga is its emphasis on attacking vulnerable soft tissue and pressure points. Many counterattacks involve eye gouging, groin attacks, and strikes to the throat. Some criticize Krav Maga for this, arguing that “it’s not manly to punch a guy in the nuts.” I brought this criticism up with David during our conversation and this was his response: “Krav Maga’s goal is to neutralize a dangerous attacker as quickly as possible. Plain and simple. Sometimes a strike to the groin is the best option to neutralize an attack. When you’re violently attacked in the street, the person attacking you isn’t following some sportsman’s code of chivalry — he wants to hurt, maim, or possibly kill you — so why should you give him the courtesy of not punching below the belt? You can’t worry about fighting etiquette or what’s ‘manly’ when your life is at stake.”
Subduing techniques. In addition to striking attacks, Krav Maga also utilizes subduing techniques in order to de-escalate a violent confrontation. Joint locks and various grabs are used to exert control over your attacker and put you in a position to end the threat.