Exploring the Origin of Krav Maga

Recently I was looking at books on judo by Moshe Feldenkrais, and it made me wonder if he had any connection with Krav Maga. I studied Krav Maga for 3 1/2 years in the Krav Maga Global system, and had never heard a word about Mr. Feldenkrais, or anyone of his generation, or earlier, beyond Imi Lichtenfeld, who was always cited as the founder of Krav Maga.

When you speak with those in KMG, or almost anyone I've encountered who studies Krav, their story of the system always begins with Imi. It's basically the same tale: Imi was a boxer, wrestler, and gymnast who learned self defense techniques from his father, a policeman, in 1920s Bratislava, now the capital of Slovakia. In the 1930s, Imi helped defend other Jewish people during the anti-Semitic violence. In the 1940s he migrated to Israel, where he invented Krav Maga and taught the Israeli Defense Force. He later brought the system to the civilian world, from where it has now flourished across the globe.

It turns out that this is only part of the story. I found an amazing paper by Dr Guy Mor titled "The Case for the Recognition of Krav-Maga as Part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Israel," published in 2018 in the Open Journal of Social Sciences.

The entire paper is worth reading, but the following excerpts are noteworthy to me:

"A  key  development  was  the  “Balfour  Declaration”  of  November  2nd  1917,  which  stated  that  the  British  government favored  the  establishment  of  a  national  homeland  for  the  Jews  in  Palestine  [26].  This  statement  led  to  increased  Jewish immigration to Palestine [27] but also to an increase in hostile resistance by the indigenous Arab population.

In response, Jewish organizations initiated forms of combat  training  relying  mainly  on  known  martial  disciplines,  such  as  Ju-Jitsu and  boxing,  combined  with  some  practical  experience  and  knowledge  acquired  by Jewish immigrants during training in their countries of origin [28]. Unfortunately, these techniques failed to save lives in real combat situations [29].

In  1920,  following  another  wave  of  Arab  attacks  against  Jewish  residents, the Hagana (a Jewish paramilitary organization) was established based on the infrastructure of Hashomer [30]. The Hagana sought to develop an unarmed combat discipline that would provide effective defense  against  Arab  attacks, and  looked  to  experts  such  as  Dr.  Moshe  Feldenkrais  and  others  to  provide  advice  on  un-armed combat.

Feldenkrais (1904-1984),  who  had  experience  of  Ju-Jitsu  and  other  hand-to-hand combat  systems,  sought  to  create  a  practical  and  more  effective  solution  based  on  his  own  research  and  incorporating  the  principle  of “unconscious  reaction”  (also known as “reflexive reaction”)...

This insight led Feldenkrais  to  establish  an  improved  fighting  and  training  regimen  whose  fundamental  principles  were  later  adopted  by  both  Kapap (an  abbreviation  of  Krav Panim  el  Panim  meaning  “face-to-face  combat”)  and  Krav-Maga.  The  Hagana command  considered  his  ideas  sufficiently  promising  to  justify  the  award  of  a  three-year grant allowing Feldenkrais to train Hagana members [32].

Between 1936 and 1939...under  the  British  mandate,  open training in combat disciplines was restricted, so Jewish immigrants adapted known hand-to-hand combat tactics to create a unique combat discipline, which could  be  represented  as  a  “defensive  sport”  (Sport  Magen).  This  discipline,  which  incorporated  techniques  from  Ju-Jitsu,  boxing  and  wrestling,  as  well  as  some of Feldenkrais’s ideas, was promoted first by Gersho Kofler as a sport under the sports organization Hapoel [35].

During the same period, a British intelligence officer (Charles Orde Wingate) stationed in Palestine decided to support the Zionist  cause  by  forming  small,  armed  assault  units  of  British-led  Jewish  commandos  to  counter  hostile  Arab  actions [36]...

During these protests, British policemen used batons to beat Jewish demonstrators, causing significant demoralization within the Jewish  community  and  the  dissolution  of  several  youth  platoons  [38].  This,  in  turn,  encouraged  Hagana  members  to  conduct  “combat  experiments”  to  find  a  practical means of countering the threat of the British batons. The outcome was the introduction of a short-stick fighting method, which became an integral part of  the  general  face-to-face  combat  training  regimen  of  the  time  [39]. 

The  conceptual transformation from a defensive to an offensive approach, along with the introduction of the short-stick weapon, was associated with a change in the labeling  of  the  combat  system;  what  was  previously  known  as  Sport  Magen became Kapap [40]...

For  the  first  decade  following  the  declaration  of  Israeli  independence  in  1948  and  the  establishment  of  the  IDF,  the  army’s  hand-to-hand  combat  training  relied  heavily  on  Kapap,  and  used  instructors  and  training  materials  from  the  Hagana [41]. It is true that from 1948 until the late 1950s, several different terms appeared in IDF documents, but these were used interchangeably.  Thus Kapap, Sport Magen and Krav-Maga [42] were all seen as variants of a common hand-to hand  system.

Eventually,  towards  the  end  of  the  period,  the  term  Krav-Maga became the accepted term for the IDF’s hand-to-hand-combat method, displacing the term Kapap altogether [43]. The most recent phase in the evolution of Krav-Maga was the development of a  non-military  form,  often  credited  to  Imi  Lichtenfeld,  a  prominent  hand-to-hand combat  instructor  and Kapap  and Krav-Maga  specialist  within  the  Hagana  and IDF [44].

From around 1964, Lichtenfeld was active in promoting Krav-Maga as a civilian discipline, introducing new techniques and adopting the judo belt sys-tem. In August 1971, the first civilian Krav-Maga instructor’s course was held in Lichtenfeld’s training club in Netanya [45]."

This has been a lengthy excerpt, and the emphasis is mine. However, it's clear that Krav Maga had a rich history before Imi emigrated to Israel, and that many other pioneers had a hand in its development.

Also, despite the statements I've seen online about Krav Maga being a "pure" or "built from the ground up" system, it's clear that it's rooted in other martial arts. It's always been a silly argument to me. The first Krav practitioners taught by Imi wore gis and adopted the judo belt system, after all.

If you've made it this far, and you're an academic, perhaps you could help me acquire a copy of what be an even more interesting paper -- History and Singularity of Krav-Maga, also by Dr Mor? Thank you!


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