Navigate to Israel & The Middle East section

The Good Fight

Krav Maga, and why the martial-arts world loves Israel

Lee Smith
August 11, 2009
Krav Maga training in Philadelphia.(William Thomas Cain/Getty Images)
Krav Maga training in Philadelphia.(William Thomas Cain/Getty Images)

Most U.S. media outlets have carefully considered positions on Israel. But the martial-arts press—everything from magazines like BlackBelt, the bible of martial arts, to the producers of books, videos and and even two recent TV programs, Human Weapon and Fight Quest—have a straightforward stance: they’re staunchly pro-Israel. That’s not to say they’re anti-Arab or anti-Muslim, but they’re not at all conflicted about the skills, competence, and integrity of Israel’s fighting men and women. The Israeli commando is regarded as the martial ideal.

Krav Maga, the Israeli martial-arts form, is what impresses the observers. It was the brainchild of Imi Lichtenfield, a boxer and wrestler in his native Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, who in the 1930s taught self-defense to that city’s Jewish population, under siege by local fascist gangs. When Lichtenfield moved to Palestine in 1942, he worked with the Haganah and Palmach and later the IDF to develop a self-defense system that borrowed from other systems, like the Japanese arts judo and karate. Where most martial arts take years of training to become proficient, Krav Maga, which translates as contact combat, was suited to the exigencies of a growing community of non-professional soldiers that needed to learn how to protect itself and fight in a hurry. Its emphasis is less on form than efficiency, and it instills a spirit of heightened aggressiveness, where practitioners are taught to attack and defend at the same time and use any available object as a weapon.

Krav Maga made its first U.S. appearance in the early 1980s, when a number of Israeli trainers arrived to instruct military and law enforcement personnel, including the FBI, and civilians. Krav Maga wended its way through mainstream American culture, featured on nightly news broadcasts and talk-shows, and interest culminated with a 2002 film, Enough, starring Jennifer Lopez, in which her character, after an intensive course in Krav Maga, throttles her abusive husband with a series of well-placed knees, elbows, and eye-gouges. Popular enthusiasm for Krav Maga has waned somewhat since then. A series of lawsuits over copyright paralyzed the industry and left some trainers inventing new names to teach a combat technique that dates back to before the founding of Israel. For instance, Avi Nardia, who has trained Israeli Special Forces as well as militaries and police forces around the world, dropped the name Krav Maga in favor of Kapap, a Hebrew acronym for face-to-face combat. “The business of Israeli martial arts is as complicated as Israeli politics,” Nardia says.

But hardcore martial artists have remained smitten with Israeli martial arts and Israeli culture. “Israelis are a different type of people, tough as nails,” says Doug Anderson, co-host of the 13-part martial arts odyssey Fight Quest. “They’ve witnessed serious violence. And while it hardens people and makes them tough, it also makes them more jubilant, and willing to live for the moment.”

As an example, Anderson cites the trainer he worked with on the show’s Israel episode, an Israeli woman with more than 20 years of martial arts experience who while explaining a technique delivered an unexpected elbow to Anderson’s face. The lesson: Be ready. “She was just a savage,” says Anderson. “A bulldog who would beat anyone—and also total sweetheart. After throwing sand in my face all day, she’d come up to me and say, ‘How are you, Doug? Can I cook you some food, do you need your laundry done?’ I think this is a side effect of the way they live there. You have to be willing to change your mentality on a dime.”

Anderson, an Iraq war veteran, suggests that many members of the U.S. military admire the Israeli fighting style for similar reasons. “Our guys respect Israeli martial arts and its military,” he says. “They both have a reputation for effectiveness. Our military is are huge, so it’s not surprising they can push people around. But these guys, it’s like a 120-pound guy walking into a bar and taking everyone on.”

Americans aren’t the only ones who’ve come to admire Israeli society through their experience with Israeli combat techniques, says Nardia, the trainer. “I was training German military in Munich,” he says. “And then someone asked me to come out to teach a gym in Dachau. I could see the towers of Dachau from Nazi days, and in the gym the German guys are wearing our black Kapap t-shirts with a yellow Star of David. They’re proud to wear it. Sixty years ago they want to kill us, and now they respect us.”

Israeli martial arts is not a self-defense technique; it’s a combat art. “Israeli arts are reality-based,” says Dana Stamos, a martial artist who runs, a major martial-arts website. “Israelis are fighting every day,” she says. “So people think this will be up to snuff, like Navy Seal training. We don’t have combat in the United States, so we don’t comprehend it. Many dojos today are about developing character, not training you how to stick a knife in someone and kill them. But a combat art is a killing art.”Anderson agrees. “There’s a real difference in intensity,” he says. “Most martial arts is for pride or sport, but this is life or death. If I don’t get this right, it’ll be my death.”

Lee Smith’s book, The Strong Horse: Power, Politics and the Clash of Arab Civilizations, will be published by Doubleday/Knopf in January 2010.