The year was 1987 when the Intifada started. Just after few months after I had joined a Jerusalem judo club, our instructor, Dr. Yosi Lev, told us he was going to make a change in our practice sessions: we would now divide our classes between judo and krav maga ("contact combat"). "As a person who has gone through some wars in this country,” he explained, “I can tell you that these riots we are experiencing right now are not going to disappear quickly. The streets in Israel are going to be much less safe, and I want you to be equipped with a martial art more practical than judo."
We all respected our instructor. Dr. Lev was a man who was struck with polio as a young child, a disease that left him paralyzed in both his legs. With a will of iron, he overcame his paralysis, studied judo, and became one of the founders of the sport in Israel. He holds a fifth dan in judo, a very high grade of black belt, and is one of the world’s leading experts in the field of martial arts for the disabled. Dr. Lev studied judo, Jujutsu, and street self-defense under Denis Hanover, one of the most important figures in the development of what is now known as krav maga.
I didn't like krav maga. I didn't like its brutality and violence. This was not my plan, I thought, when I chose judo as my sport. Indeed, I did not survive the practice of judo, either; when Yosi eventually decided that teaching judo was too demanding for him, I left it for the study of aikido, which aims at self-defense without unnecessary harm to the attacker.
I did appreciate, though, having been taught krav maga as a modern martial art. Every martial art is limited by its martial culture. Every war culture, be it a war between armies or between street fighters, has its own ethical values, its own rules. Traditional martial arts are bound by what is permitted in the cultures that developed them and the arms that were used when the arts were developed. Thus, every traditional martial art contains anachronism: in the modern street, you will not be attacked in the same way you would have been in traditional Japan. Krav maga is known for its focus on real-world situations and efficient, brutal counter-attacks. It answers challenges that traditional martial arts do not.
Krav maga was derived from street-fighting skills developed by Hungarian-Israeli martial artist Imi Lichtenfeld, who made use of his training as a boxer and wrestler to defend the Jewish quarter against fascist groups in the then-Czechoslovakian city of Bratislava in the mid-to-late 1930s. In the late 1940s Lichtenfeld immigrated to Israel and began to provide combat training lessons to what would become the Israeli Defense Forces, which went on to develop the system now known as krav maga. It has since been refined for civilian, police, and military applications.
Krav maga is about tachles—translated, very imperfectly, as brass tacks. A key principle of krav maga is finishing a fight as quickly as possible; therefore, all attacks are aimed toward the most vulnerable parts of the body. In krav maga you will not find any of those elements of Zen that are so crucial in oriental martial arts. A krav maga practitioner is focused only on efficiency.
Since krav maga is taught in the IDF, most Israelis encounter it in one way or another; but only a few Israelis practice high-level krav maga, which is taught only in army special units. And most do not practice it after they leave the IDF, despite their military exposure to krav maga and despite the fact that martial arts are a fairly common sport in Israel. Few Israelis choose judo, either. In contrast, many practice karate, kung fu, tae kwan do, and—as I do—aikido.
Israelis’ abandonment of krav maga when they leave the IDF does not reflect an absence of Israeli martial pride or even krav maga’s brutality. Many Israelis, for instance, practice forms of karate which are nowhere as fine or sensitive as aikido. Instead, the problem of krav maga, in my opinion, is its lack of values.
Israelis search for meaning. Survival is not enough. Perhaps the tangible value of martial arts is part of what attracts so many in Israel, but oriental martial arts also answer some need for meaning that is lacking in modern secular life. It is the same drive that sends Israelis to India, to Japan, to South America. Martial arts enchant even religious Israelis who do not lack meaning in their lives. There is no question that Zen as a philosophy also attracts many Israelis. Although Zen may seem as foreign to a Jewish youth as to any other Western youth, there are some values, shared by Zen and Judaism, which touch the deepest Jewish feelings.
What attracted me in aikido, the martial art I chose, were its values. In practicing aikido I found myself applying Jewish principles on which I was raised. In aikido, peace and harmony are real values, not just values that are declared theoretically but values that are challenged in a battle. What is so special in aikido is that these values are truly reflected in the art.
Unlike krav maga, aikido assumes that violence attracts violence, while gentleness creates gentleness. Further, what is unique in aikido lies not just in its strategy but in its concrete practice. One responds to violence with a gentle gesture not in order to turn the other cheek but as a matter of martial wisdom. An aikidoka, or aikido practitioner, truly believes in the power to win through gentleness.
Aikido has another value that is no less important: it teaches the avoidance of self-centeredness. When practicing aikido, one focuses on one’s partner, not on oneself. Moreover, one does so at the most vulnerable moment, facing the most difficult challenge—that is, while being attacked. At this moment, instead of falling into a natural posture of self-preservation, an aikidoka is taught to focus on the opponent’s body and soul. These values of peace, harmony, and grace are not only taught but practiced in aikido.
As we all know, Judaism as a religion and a culture created philosophy, ethics, even music and art. Martial arts are not its claim to fame. In a historical moment in need of a Jewish warrior, when Jews in many places on the globe need to know how to defend themselves, we have krav maga. I would have wished for a martial art that better reflects Jewish values. Krav maga does reflect the famed strength of the IDF, but I would have been happier with a martial art that is more graceful, peaceful, and gentle. It would not be a Jewish martial art, but it would be a martial art that better suits Judaism.
Joseph Isaac Lifshitz is a Senior Fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem.
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