The Roots of the System

The founder of Krav Maga, Imi Lichtenfeld, was born in 1910 in Hungary, but grew up in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia. A natural athlete, Imi won the Slovakian Youth Wrestling Championship in 1928, and a year later won the adult championship in the welterweight division. That same year, he won both the national boxing championship and an intermediate gymnastics championship. For the next decade, he earned a place as one of the premier wrestlers in Europe. However, Imi’s greatest influence was his father, Samuel, a police officer and self-defense instructor. Samuel started as a circus acrobat and wrestler, but later entered the police department and served for 30 years as chief detective inspector. He became well-known for his impressive arrest record, particularly his capture of dangerous criminals.

When not on the trail of violent felons, Samuel taught self-defense techniques at Hercules, Bratislava’s first gym, which he owned. In training, Samuel constantly emphasized the need for proper moral conduct in dealing with the public and with suspects.

In the 1930’s, Imi honed his fighting skills in the streets of Bratislava, protecting himself and other Jews from local fascist thugs. He took part in numerous fights to prevent anti-Semitic mobs from terrorizing the Jewish community in the city. These fights sharpened Imi’s awareness of the difference between sport and street fighting. It was at this time that the seeds of Krav Maga were planted in this mind.

By the late 1930s, Adolph Hitler’s Nazi Germany had turned Europe into a battlefield and made it a perilous place for Jews. Imi’s fights to protect his family and neighbors from anti-Semitism rapidly made him unpopular with the local authorities, and he was forced to leave in 1940.

After several years of travel, he arrived in Israel, which was then called Palestine. He joined the Haganah, a paramilitary organization fighting for Jewish independence. During this time he taught other soldiers basic hand-to-hand fighting skills, and his reputation grew.

In 1948, the State of Israel was born. The fledgeling Israel government asked Imi to develop an effective fighting system, which later became codified as the Krav Maga system. The Haganah was eventually incorporated into the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), and Imi became the military school’s chief instructor for physical training and Krav Maga.

This history of Imi and Israel is important for anyone interested in understanding the nature of Krav Maga training. From the moment it was born, the State of Israel was at war with its neighbors. Israel needed to field an army immediately, sending soldiers into battle with minimal training and not time for retraining or refresher courses. For this reason, combat techniques had to be easy to learn and easy to remember under stress, even if the solider had not had training in a significant amount of time. In addition, the IDF was sending into battle soliders of all ages and abilities, from 18-year-old warriors to 40-year-old farmers. The combat system had to be accessible to a wide variety of soldiers, not just athletes in their prime.

Imi’s solution was to base the self-defense portion of his combat techniques on the body’s natural instincts. Instead of deciding what he wanted the solider to do, he started by observing how their bodies reacted under stress, and used those instinctive reactions as the building blocks for his self-defense system. This approach guarantees that the mechanics of the system stay close to the body’s natural movements. Just as importantly, the approach reduces reaction time, especially under stress, since the techniques are close to the body’s innate response to stress.

Another element Imi added to Krav Maga was aggressiveness. This attitude was also borne out of Israel’s predicament following its establishment. War is always bloody and brutal, but throughout history many wars have ended with some sort of agreement: the winner and loser sign a treaty, and the loser often survives in some fashion. The declared goal of Israel’s enemies was to wipe it off the face of the earth. For this reason, Israel believed that it could never lose a war: losing meant it would cease to exist. In response, Israel treated every battle, every war, like a fight for survival. This attitude permeated all aspects of its training, including the hand-to-hand combat. Krav Maga reacts aggressively to violent attacks, moving immediately to neutralize the attacker. We also train with a “never quit” spirit because (again looking back to the system’s history) the results of quitting can be devastating to us.

Krav Maga in the United States
In the 1960s, with military approval, Imi began teaching Krav Maga to civilians in Israel. In 1981, the Krav Maga Association of Israel and the Ministry of Education held the first International Instructor’s Course at Wingate Institute for Physical Education. A generous philanthropist from New York, S. Daniel Abraham, sponsored a delegation of 23 members from various cities in the United States to attend. The course was supervised by Imi, then 71 and retired from his military career, and taught by Krav Maga lead instructors Shike Barak, Eyal Yanilov, and Ruevin Moimon. Darren Levine was selected as one of the delegates because of his martial arts and boxing background, as well as his involvement in the physical education program at Heschel Day School new L.A.

The course was a six-week intensive course that involved over eight hours of training per day, six days per week. The course was exhausting, and by the end only a few people passed. Darren was one of them.

During the course, Imi and Darren became friends, and Imi promised Darren that he would visit him in the United States. True to his word, in the summer of 1982 Imi traveled to Los Angeles and lived with Darren and his family while teaching Darren more about Krav Maga.

Darren tells a story about Imi’s visit, a story that he also told while delivering his eulogy at Imi’s funeral in 1998.

When Imi came to visit me, I had just bought a new sports car and I was really excited to show it to him. I was really proud of that car. But when Imi got in the car, he started shifting and fidgeting around, reaching over his shoulder. He looked unhappy. Finally, I asked him what was wrong. He said, “This car isn’t good. The seat belt, it’s too far back. I can’t reach it with my right hand. I can’t reach it with my left hand. I’m a lazy one. It needs to be easy, or people won’t wear their seat belt. It’s not safe.”

At the time, I was just disappointed. I wanted him to be impressed with my car. But later I realized that he looked at that seat belt the same belt the same way he looked at everything. It had to be simple, effective or people wouldn’t be able to do it. That was Krav Maga.

Darren’s training continued, and in 1984 he received his full instructor’s degree from Wingate Institute. That year, Imi gave Darren his own personal black belt. Years later, Imi would award Darren with a Founder’s Diploma, one of only two Imi gave before his death. Darren and his colleagues had already formed the Krav Maga Association of America, and the growth of Krav Maga in the United Stated had begun.

Krav Maga for Law Enforcement
In 1987, Darren and his top students began teaching Krav Maga to law enforcement in the United States. Under Imi’s guidance, Darren adopted Krav Maga to the needs of U.S. law enforcment and military personnel. The first agency to adopt Krav Maga into its force training curriculum was the Illinois State Police. When Darren taught them, Imi, then 77, flew out from Israel to attend.

Since that time, Krav Maga’s involvement with law enforcement has grown rapidly. Krav Maga Worldwide (our company, which received a master license from the Krav Maga Association of America) now trains over 400 law enforcement agencies at the federal, state, and local levels.

In many ways, law enforcement agencies share the same needs that the Israeli military felt after its birth: limited training time, limited opportunities for retraining, and a wide variety in officer abilities. Krav Maga is the obvious answer for them.

Some individuals, knowing how aggressive Krav Maga can be, raise an eyebrow when they hear that we teach law enforcement officers. After all, law enforcement work is different from military work: war is to kill or be killed, but we demand more restraint from police officers. We agree with this sentiment completely, and we include use-of-force education and escalation/de-escalation drills in our law enforcement training.

Having said that, we have also discovered an interesting aspect of Krav Maga’s aggressive approach. Because we train officers to go from a non-aggressive to aggressive state immediately, they usually neutralize a violent subject very quickly. The more quick the subject is neutralized, the less of a fight there is. Less fight equals less damage. The result: Agencies often find that use-of-force complaints decrease once they adopt Krav Maga training.

The Roots of the System courtesy of the book Complete Krav Maga.