As martial arts go, Krav Maga is a relative latecomer to the family.
It’s probably one of the youngest martial arts in modern history, dating back less than a century, when it was brought about as a means of teaching people practical combative skills in the simplest way possible and in the shortest time possible.
THE POPULAR HISTORY: HOW KRAV MAGA WAS CREATED
Now, pretty much everyone who has even a passing interest in Krav Maga knows how it came into existence, right?
It was conceived as an act of martial arts wizardry, blending the best elements of several traditional martial arts together to form a revolutionary hand to hand combatives system that was (and is) really clever and workable. And, if you read the accounts of many (if not most) mainstream Krav Maga organizations, it was nothing short of an immaculate conception.
In the popular Krav Maga scriptures, one man – the Renaissance Man of modern martial arts - singlehandedly pulled together components from several traditional martial arts, made them practical, and in a burst of innovative genius, codified them into a system called Krav Maga.
That man was Imi Lichtenfeld, an Eastern European refugee who settled in Israel and became the figurehead, the icon, the one and only, the founder of Krav Maga.
And, the story goes, unless you, or one of your teachers, were trained by Imi, and unless you carry the lineage and stamp of approval from his original organization, then… your Krav Maga is not truly authentic.
It’s a great story!
An inspiring story.
There are, however, a few, um, little details that have been - shall we say - overlooked. And, like most stories about icons, it’s been somewhat tailored to suit a particular narrative.
Imi Lichtenfeld was, and always will be, an inspiring and visionary figure. He deserves the veneration due to him, and should be held in the highest esteem for his role in publicizing Krav Maga to a largely civilian audience.
But, to be clear, Imi Lichtenfeld was not the founder of Krav Maga, much less the "sole founder". He did not invent it, it was not his exclusive brainchild, and the system he codified is no more or less “authentic” than any other system or stream of Krav Maga out there.
And, with all due credit and no disrespect to Imi, here’s why that is.
THE ACTUAL, UNABRIDGED HISTORY OF KRAV MAGAAccording to historians like Noah Gross, and based on records that are very easily verifiable, this is how Krav Maga was actually created.
Stage 1: Refugees return to the Middle East
In the late 1880s, Jews from Europe began to return to the Middle East, amid a climate of growing oppression and hostility. First a handful of families, then a trickle more, and then an ever-increasing number of returnees began to form small communities and towns.
They were not welcomed with open arms, however, and attacks and threats against the settlers were commonplace. So, in 1903, the Maccabi Union was formed, with the goal of teaching physical fitness and a very basic means of self defense. This primarily took the form of stick fighting, at that stage.
Stage 2: Creation of informal militias
Then, in 1907, the HaShomer, or “The Guard” came into being, a group tasked specifically with defending Jewish settlements, and in 1919, a pioneer named Ze’ev Jabotinsky formed the Haganah, which was put together with pretty much the same intention.
This was the earliest sign of a codified system of self defense that became known as Kapap, and later evolved into what we know as Krav Maga.
Stage 3: Formal self defense training
Then, in 1941, a group of instructors – Maishel Horowitz (Stick techniques), Menashe Harel, Yitzhak Shtibel, Yehuda Markus (Jujitsu and Judo), and Gershon Kofler (Jujitsu and Boxing) – started offering self defense courses and workshops to the general population, as well as the informal militia that was slowly taking shape. These gentlemen were skilled in boxing, wrestling, Jujitsu, and stickfighting, and had learned their craft while still in Europe.
And, to put it plainly, these instructors – as well as those who had preceded them – were the original founders of the syncretized system of combatives that we know today as Krav Maga.
With the foundation firmly established, and the techniques and methods well laid out, they were then joined in 1942 by another instructor skilled in wrestling and boxing, a man who had just emigrated from Czechoslovakia. That man was Emrich Lichtenfeld, or “Imi” as he later became known.
Together, the group taught armed and unarmed combat techniques, and Imi became a Kapap instructor who later trained the Palmach as well. One of Imi’s significant contributions to this process was a shift away from stickfighting toward a more Jujitsu-based approach.
Stage 4: Israeli statehood and the formation of the IDF
When Israel became a state in 1948, the informal militias were combined and became the very first iteration of the IDF. Imi was recruited, and became a member of the IDF physical training school, where he was one of 11 Kapap instructors responsible for teaching hand to hand combatives.
It was at this time that the decision was made to unify and formalize all the existing combat systems under one umbrella, and call it Krav Maga. This was proclaimed to be the “official” hand to hand combat system taught in the IDF and Police Force.
When this process began, not even all the different branches of the military were exposed to the same methods, simply because of the haste with which the IDF had to be formed (it was formed literally in the middle of a war). It was every man for himself, and in this cooking pot of fast evolution, quite a few people held different views on what actually constituted this new thing called "Krav Maga".
Stage 5: Civilian popularity of Krav Maga
In 1964, Imi Lichtenfeld left the military, and opened a “club” for civilians, where he taught Krav Maga in a format that was simple and relatively easy to learn.
This form of Krav Maga, like the military version, was based heavily on boxing and Jujitsu, and a format was adopted similar to that of traditional martial arts, where coloured belts were used to indicate progress and ability.
Stage 6: Gradual global expansion, and – oh, dear – politics
In the next several decades, Krav Maga began to gain in visibility and popularity.
Inevitably, as demand grew, so did ego, and in order to compete for customers, several Krav Maga organizations began PR campaigns that were designed to establish their own supposed superiority or exclusivity.
This marketing campaign of "only we teach the authentic Krav Maga" is still going on, and dozens of years later, there are still two large organizations which each claim to “directly represent” Imi Lichtenfeld, and are constantly bickering over who is telling the truth. They claim that:
- Imi Lichtenfeld was the sole founder of Krav Maga, and therefore
- As his authorized descendents, only their brand of Krav Maga is authentic.
There are other Krav Maga organizations as well, many of whom also claim to have some kind of secret insider information or lineage, and which claim to teach “authentic” Krav Maga.
By way of example, a previously world-renowned instructor guru, claiming that he teaches “special forces / secret military commando” style Krav Maga, was exposed and discredited just a few years ago for lying about having trained under Imi Lichtenfeld.
And, in addition to those, there are literally dozens (if not perhaps a hundred or more) smaller groups and organizations who teach some or other variant of what is commonly known as Krav Maga. And unfortunately, for the ordinary, decent individual who simply wants to get some good self defense training, this can be horribly confusing. Nearly every second “instructor” out there claims to have been in a Special Forces unit somewhere, or to have some kind of exclusive, top-secret inside track to the world’s “best” Krav Maga, or to have been trained by some secret Israeli Special Forces Ninja.
Plenty of these Rambo-type characters fudge the truth about their actual experience or qualifications, some with faked military claims, and yet others who suffer from a Messiah complex and claim that theirs is the only “true” Krav Maga to be found (and that everyone else on the planet is wrong).
To put it mildly, it’s become quite a mess. And yet - despite that - Krav Maga continues to grow in popularity.
HERE’S ANOTHER “SECRET” ABOUT THE HISTORY OF KRAV MAGA
As an example, Karate started out as an Okinawan martial art, then became a Japanese art, and then a multicultural and global art. In the same way, Krav Maga is still evolving, to the point where it is now no longer only “Israeli” Krav Maga at all.
And just as the early founders of Krav Maga "borrowed" and adapted traditional Japanese, British, and American martial arts techniques for a specific practical purpose in the early 1900s, so there are dedicated Krav Maga teachers and thinkers who are – right now – evolving and adapting “traditional” Krav Maga to suit the needs and circumstances of a fast-changing world. (For a simple example of this kind of evolutionary thinking applied to a handgun disarm, check out this article.)
So, quite simply, for anyone to claim that their particular brand of Krav Maga is the “only authentic version” or “true Krav Maga” or somehow special or unique based on lineage or self-appointed superiority, is, quite frankly, deluded if not downright dishonest.
You see, Krav Maga is innately flexible. The Krav Maga taught in South Africa, for example, has to be different to the Krav Maga taught in Israel – because the criminal threats and contexts are completely different.
And the same applies to any Krav Maga teaching given elsewhere in the world: for example, in the UK, for Krav Maga instructors to focus heavily on handgun disarm practice, or handgun use, would be absurd, because civilian handgun ownership is banned. However, to focus more heavily on knife defenses and disarms instead makes perfect sense, because of the knife crime prevalent in the UK.
But, by the same token, teaching those same UK-style knife defenses in South Africa would be totally stupid, because knife attacks in Cape Town and Johannesburg are completely different to knife attacks in London and Glasgow.
KRAV MAGA IS A LIVING CODEX: AN EVOLVING ORGANISM
“Krav Maga” is a template, a flexible blueprint, a blanket term used to describe a broad set of techniques that are commonly used across many different contexts, but the wonderful thing is that the template can be adapted in an astonishing number of different ways – and it should be.
On top of that, there are new techniques (and improvements to old techniques) that are being forged all the time, and the day may come where modern, evolved Krav Maga bears as much resemblance to “old” Krav Maga as modern MMA bears to old Queensbury-rules boxing.
This evolution has to happen – it must happen – and those who are afraid of change simply because they’re clinging to outdated beliefs or traditions, will ultimately become irrelevant and then extinct.
For anyone today who is a Krav Maga practitioner or instructor, this is an exciting time to be alive – because there are so many more choices, there is so much more information and data and experience from which to draw knowledge, and there is a very real freedom now in the way the martial arts are evolving to keep pace with a new millennium.
Krav Maga pioneers in the 21st century are now embracing and adopting other styles and methods, too, as part of the living codex of Krav Maga - from old-school combatives to Muay Thai to Filipino and Russian martial arts, from weapons systems to vastly enhanced groundwork thanks to the influence of BJJ and MMA, in an era where new challenges require evolved solutions.
The evolution – and the revolution - is still happening, and it's happening right now. It's time for the dinosaurs to let go of the constant and idiotic one-upmanship, the petty politics, the hysterical nationalism, and the small-minded scrabbling for perceived approval.
The history of Krav Maga is still being being written.
And the good news is, you’re part of it.
What will your legacy be?
AN EXTRACT FROM:
Martial Arts Of The World: An Encyclopedia Of History And Innovation
by Thomas Green & Joseph Svinth
EXTRACT FROM AN INTERVIEW WITH HISTORIAN NOAH GROSS