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Krav Maga

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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Brooklynrab on October 4, 2012 at 7:47 am (Reply)
I am unfamiliar with the "philosophy" of Aikido, and found this article to be interesting. However, thank G-d dreamers like you don't run the IDF or police departments. Gentleness towards your adversary in a fight for life itself IS SIMPLY A PRESCRIPTION FOR DEFEAT AND POSSIBLY GREATER VIOLENCE. You might be able to use your tactics to calm a fight down dealing with an isolated enraged Arab youth in the street, but don't try it on the battlefield or in a riot situation. Go back to teaching philosophy and religion.
Paardestaart on October 4, 2012 at 8:44 am (Reply)
What could be more jewish than trying to preserve life?
Remember: krav maga was designed to efficiently defend one´s community against stealth attacks.
Perhaps mr. Lifschitz´ musings reflect what seems to me the greatest delusion of the Israeli nation: the thought that jews owe an enemy more than just defeat.
Steve on October 4, 2012 at 8:44 am (Reply)
I read about Israel every day. Based on what I read, I believe that Krav Maga should be mandatory training for every Jewish person. When attacked by an adversary that is determined to kill (most likely) or maim, one must fight back aggressively enough to prevent the attacker from continuing aggression or, possibly, from ever engaging in the same behavior again. The routine release of homicidal terrorists also mandates the use of Krav Maga.
Martin Ingall on October 4, 2012 at 9:33 am (Reply)
With unbounded admiration for many of your other writings, you misunderstand what krav maga is and is not. It is not a martial art at all. It is not a non-traditional martial art. It did not develop with any particular philosophy in mind. It is simply fighting, brutal fighting. It has a lot in common with the hand-to-hand combat training of other armies, especially that of the US Marines.

But the real problem with what you've written is that you've joined the unrelenting chorus for Jewish perfection and unjustified critique of Israeli culture. You're looking so hard for something to criticize that you've actually invented this one.

Imi Lichtenfeld was a hero, undertaking a holy mission upon himself. He worked hard to find a way to teach people who were not accustomed to defending themselves to do so. Whether in the circumstances of a pogrom or war in the Middle East, his fighting techniques no doubt have saved the lives of many a Jew. We should all be delighted that the IDF can teach its soldiers to quickly disable or, yes, even kill the enemy in close quarters. We do of course wish the world were different, but sanctification happens in this world, on this earth, in this lifetime, not in an imaginary, non-existent world. It's a shame you've not made this distinction.
    Isaac Lifshitz on October 4, 2012 at 10:16 am (Reply)
    Dear Martin, the last thing I meant was to criticize Imi Lichtenfeld. You are correct that KMI is not a martial art, and at the time that Imi Lichtenfeld developed his style, very few knew better. KMI is by the way not such a monolithic style, and there are more violent clubs than others. As I wrote, I do not recommend giving the other cheek. I demand sophistication. Sophistication doesn't only mean sophistication of movements but also psychological sophistication. A violent defense creates all kinds of unnecessary reactions. That is why Japanese forces chose Aikido, and they didn't do so because they were defeated in World war 2.
R. Benveneste on October 4, 2012 at 10:26 am (Reply)
The photo accompanying this article is interesting. It shows a slender young woman fighting and pushing back a muscular young man. The picture is typical of so much of modern television and movie fare, which regularly portrays the fantasy of "strong women" fighting with and overpowering men. Back in reality, 99% percent of the time the female is going to get beaten, and beaten badly, and there wont be much of a fight. Martial arts programs like Krav Maga make a lot of their money advertising themselves to single women as a self defense program, but it is simply not going to work against any moderately healthy male. It is foolhardy and dangerous to pretend otherwise.
    Mercury on October 4, 2012 at 11:59 am (Reply)
    Your argument kinda goes against the whole idea of training though doesn't it.
M Sofer on October 4, 2012 at 11:12 am (Reply)
Refresher on 'Jewish values': "Im ba l'hargekha, hashkem l'hargo," "If someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him (first)."
Steve David on October 4, 2012 at 11:45 am (Reply)
I am in complete agreement with the replies thus far. Every Jew should learn Krav Maga to show the world that we are no longer victims or punching bags; now we know how to fight back. When Palestinian terrorists cross into Israel to kidnap the next Gilad Schalit, "gentleness" towards his assailants should be the last thing on his mind. "Gracefully and peacefully" is for ballet class, not for war.
Mercury on October 4, 2012 at 11:45 am (Reply)
unless you go out of your way to make enemies most times you get attacked on the street it'll be by some random guy. A member of the school I attend was recently threatened with a HIV infected needle whilst taking out cash. He did not use violent attacks on him, he handed him the money and ran. That is krav. They regularly discuss how to carry yourself under threat. If you're fighting someone and don't physically hurt them what's going to stop them from attacking you? We all have values here. You don't strike someone unless you really feel you have to. we learn soft defences for when someone we emotionally care about/someone you don't want to put in the hospital is attacking you. However if someone really badly wants to kill and he's brought a couple of buddies along, you can't run because you're with your family and say one of them's got a knife, are you going to count on them being scared after throwing them about a few times?. If your art honestly doesn't cause your attackers pain then what does it cause?
Paardestaart on October 4, 2012 at 11:50 am (Reply)
Benveneste you are so right: the icon of the strong woman is stupid and unrealistic, and above all it is dangerous..Women as much as children have bought far too much into the myth of defensibility. Their safety while facing agression from a stronger opponent may depend much more on cunning, and eventually on their vulnerability and gentleness. While in the past women or children may have managed to defuse potentially violent situations I´m afraid they now actually often fan the flames by acting agressive, even if only in words, and this may often contribute to an escalation of violence.
Everyone should be prepared to fight unto the death if really threatened, but in the face of force you should know when to fight and when to run or to negotiate. For that kind of judgement learning krav maga seems a wise step..Everyone should be trained to put up a fight.
Steve David on October 4, 2012 at 11:55 am (Reply)
Letter writer R. Benveneste is skeptical that Krav Maga is effective for women. Assuming he is a male, Mr. Benveneste may change his mind after watching this short video:

I don't know Mr. Benveneste, but if he was fighting the woman in this video, my money's on her.
Leah Cypess on October 5, 2012 at 8:19 am (Reply)
This was an interesting and well-written article, and gives me respect for the philosophy and practice of aikido, which I had only heard of in passing before. However, I think the comparison is between apples and oranges: martial arts training with its stylized sparring does not necessarily have the same goals as a self-defense class. Speaking as a woman (who lives in the US) whose main concern is self-defense, this convinced me that when I have time to learn a martial art, krav maga will be first on my list and aikido will be last. If you're attacked on the street, your attacker doesn't care about causing you pain (if it's a sexual assault, that is part of his goal); and I see no reason a potential victim should handicap herself with concern about her attacker's pain.
Isaac Lifshitz on October 5, 2012 at 9:35 am (Reply)
To Leah,
You are correct that Aikido will not give you the immediate skills to fight a potential attacker. At the same time, I am not sure that KAMI will give you these skills either. An illusion of being a skillful fighter after few months might be pretty dangerous (though some time it might scare a potential attacker). Fighting skills are acquired through hard work and a long experience of practice, and it doesn't matter much which sort of martial you choose. As a practical advice I will suggest any system that makes you feel comfortable with, and of course a good instructor. As I wrote, I feel good with a system that has wonderful values like Aikido, but everybody is different.
Shlomo on October 6, 2012 at 9:13 am (Reply)
One night, a drunk or drugged young man accosted me on the street, threatened with a popsicle stick, and demanded my money. I laughed and walked away. Yes, I was nervous, but that was the end of it. The choice for me here was not between different fighting systems, but the level of response appropriate to the situation.
Paardestaart on October 7, 2012 at 10:39 am (Reply)
Well, good for you. But maybe this was a trial run, and maybe you should consider getting ready for other kinds of attack.
Not many people report a popsickle stick as attack weapon.
But of course you know that, and of course you are merely trolling..
Daniel on October 9, 2012 at 1:11 pm (Reply)
Excuse and typos, as I'm writing on a cell phone.

I honestly don't understand the political correctness of most of the commenters on this essay.

This essay was possibly the biggest pile of trash I've ever encountered, and find it especially disgraceful that the author is associated with the "Shalem Center". As a think tank that supposedly produces ideas for the Jewish people, of expect more than this idiocy which will run us into the ground.

In case you hadn't noticed, SIR, Krav Maga is meant for self defense. Nothing more and nothing less. If you can't find anything else to spew nonsense about, at least you should embarrass yourself with far fetched philosophies with no basis in reality.

The Jewish people are aware that if we don't take a stand for ourselves, no one else will. In a choice between MY people and my ENEMY I will not focus on HIS well being. You, sir, have your priorities mixed up. We are not a people of war, not violence, but when attacked we will strike out with what ever self defense will destroy our enemy.

I recommend you step down from the ivory tower before you do any more damage.
ketoret on October 9, 2012 at 5:45 pm (Reply)
I do not know much of the society that produced the "martial arts with values" that you associate with Aikido - it is also the society that believes in suicide for honor's sake, that used aircraft as suicide bombs in WW2, and finds reading over-the-top cartoon pornography in public as perfectly acceptable. The values that characterize our society are quite apparent in our fighting force. The techniques of krav maga were developed in a world of almost casual antisemitism and anti-Jewish violence. Unfortunately, as Israelis and Jews were still encounter these situations today, both here and abroad. In a situation of personal danger, the operative value is self-defense - that's a valid Jewish value. Brutality for brutality's sake is not a value, and I don't believe Krav Maga teaches humiliation and dehumanization.

I carry a gun. I hate carrying a gun, but I feel I have a responsibility to my family, my fellow Israelis, and yes, even to myself to have the tools necessary for self-defense. I wish it were not necessary, but I will not change the violence aimed at me (us) by not carrying a gun. Our people is in an anomalous situation - essentially peaceful and yet fighting for our lives. We can do that and maintain our values - if we are clear to ourselves about the world we live in and study the values that make us proud to be Jews and Israelis.
TheBigJ on October 11, 2012 at 11:51 am (Reply)
The Jews of Europe were pacifist. Look what happened to them. Even the few revolts against the Nazis occured when the last Jews were in the ghetto.
The Chinese, Japanese, and other nations who created the martial arts forms are nations of many millions of people, with lots of power in this world. They can afford to be peaceful to their enemies. Not so the Jews. This world can be a very dangerous place for Jews, and even to this day,Jews endure persecution in Iran, Yemen, Venezuela, and Malmo, Sweden. Krav maga, of which I'm a practitioner, is a uniquely Jewish response, well rooted in Jewish values. The cultivation of Krav Maga needs to be part of a new ideology for Jews, of which the points are as follows:

1) Cultivating Jewish self defense both in Israel and the Diaspora. That means Krav Maga, and the use of guns, knives, everything. I can certainly see your point about including with it, some meditation and spirituality, but not out of concern for the enemy.

2) Mounting a full scale defense of Israel on all fronts, including the media, naming and shaming those with bias, and building bridges with allies. A temporary Palestinian state may be necessary in order for the Palestinian ideology to burn itself out.

3) Promoting conversions to Judaism on a mass scale.
Kossem on October 15, 2012 at 5:01 am (Reply)
This very fine and sensitive analysis strongly resonates in my ears, as I can share similar experiences.
I trained hard for about a year in (then secret here) krav maga at the end of the 70s, then looked for a more subtle and non-confrontational martial art until I started Aikido in 1986, which I have come to teach for the last ten years.
I can only agree with J.I. Lifshitz, and would like to add two points, important in my eyes: Aikido can also be amazingly efficient and deadly (it is the only martial art without any competition, the real reason being that it is too dangerous), and it is much more than a fighting practice, a real art, though martial, best understood as a way of life, influencing up to personal stress management, social interactions and conflict resolution.
And besides its self-defense aspects, I prefer also to open Aikido as a personal development on universal human values, above and beyond racial creed and religious or sociocultural beliefs, be them Jewish.
Tzurah on November 5, 2012 at 7:31 am (Reply)
In my experience, I've found that it's precisely because of my attachment to and engagement in Judaism that I gravitated away from martial arts that have a strong philosophical emphasis. I switched into doing boxing and filipino martial arts (FMA) after 4 years in a traditional-minded style of jujitsu. The switch was liberating because in both boxing and FMA, it was all about "tachles" with little philosophical pretension. All I really wanted to get out of martial arts was becoming proficient in efficient and effective ways of defending myself. I realized after the fact that a lot of my jujitsu buddies (many of them unaffiliated Jewish) liked the focus on tradition, history and philosophy that jujitsu provided precisely because they lacked that focus elsewhere in their lives. I, on the other hand, didn't need the dojo for such an outlet. I was satisfied in providing myself with tradition, history and philosophy at shul and the beit midrash. I have nothing against traditional Japanese culture; I think it has a lot to offer. I certainly don't share the sentiments of some fummer-than-thou Jews who imagine the specter of avodah zara behind every strange and unfamiliar far-eastern custom. However, I can't help but be a bit sad when I see Jews with no connection to Yiddishkeit be so enamored with the traditions and philosophies of others when they know so little about their own.

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