The Unabridged History of Krav Maga

The history of Krav Maga (What is Krav Maga?) is famously linked to the lives of Imi Lichtenfeld and the first generation of instructors he trained. Despite the popular belief, though, he was not, strictly speaking, the founder of Krav Maga.

The origins of the style go deeper in time and benefited greatly from the influence of other major figures who have been largely ignored by most commentators.

Jewish Brigade training krav maga - Egypt (1941-42)

What is true, however, is that it all began in eastern Europe...

The origins of Krav Maga

The history of Krav Maga can be traced back to pre-World War II Eastern Europe. But before the fighting system itself, there was the idea that Jewish people could be the master of their own destiny.

In 1898, the co-founder of the World Zionist Organisation, Max Nordau, then a doctor in Budapest, came up with the concept of a "muscular judaism" which encouraged its adherents to develop moral and physical toughness through training.

This is important because it gave Jewish communities a direction. They had a right to self-defence but they needed method, training and organisation. This turned out to be the common thread from which Krav Maga developed.

Postcard commemorating the 10th anniversary of the "Israelitischer Turnverein Konstantinopel" (Israel Gymnastic Club), 1895/1905

In 1891, the settlers of Rehovot formed a militia and undertook regular combat training. At that point, though, they relied mostly on known martial disciplines such as Jujitsu, wrestling and boxing (Mor 2019).

In 1920, a paramilitary organisation, the Haganah, was formed to protect Jewish settlements in Palestine. The Haganah command was looking for an effective hand-to-hand combat system. It is in this context that key immigrant figures became involved (Mor 2019).

The most influencial of them all was Moshe Feldenkrais.

Moshe Feldenkrais (1904-1984)

Moshe Feldenkrais was born in 1904 in Belarus where he gained experience fighting anti-semitic mobs (Mor 2019). In 1918, at the age of 14, he immigrated to Palestine where he attended Jujitsu classes.

But Ju-Jitsu proved utterly ineffective in real combat situations. Actually, training was making things worse. Students who performed techniques well in class were being injured or killed in real situations.

"[...] the big experts went against knives and swords with naked hands or with a stick and half of them were killed, or wounded” - Moshe Feldenkrais (in Leri 1977)

One of the problems was that Jujitsu requires constant training and dedication:

"if you study for two months and then have two years without training and then believe that you can take a sword out of someone's hands who wants to kill you, then you are an innocent idiot. And your chances of success are fuck-all.” - Moshe Feldenkrais (in Leri 1977)

This prompted Feldenkrais to research a better way to fight and to assimilate techniques.

His investigations led him to define the concept of "first movement" which is simply the instinctive reaction one has when attacked. In other words, the natural reactive movement that a person does without thinking.

He decided to start from there because, he hypothesised, i) people should be able to reliably reproduced these reflexive reactions, ii) the learning process will be faster. Feldenkrais developed self-defence routine for a variety of attacks based on the primary reactions of people and added follow-up movements.

But would people remember these moves even after they've stopped training for months?

To put his theory to test, he trained a group of people for three months and then ceased training for a year. Twelve months later, the result was that:
"most trainees automatically performed the follow-up moves that had been linked to their first spontaneous reaction” - (Mor 2019)

This was promising so Feldenkrais enrolled a few comrads from his Haganah group to refined and perfect the system. They worked for about 2 years and then submitted their results to the direction of the Haganah (Leri 1977). In 1921, Feldenkrais received funding that he used to put together an illustrated manual.

In 1931 he published his seminal volume Jujitsu and Self Defence in which he describes his training method and explains the principle of first movement (aka "unconscious reaction", "reflexive reaction").

Feldenkrais' book was the product of a decade of field experience and training. In many ways, it was ahead of its time as the discussion about situational awareness shows. This work would became the fundations on which Kapap and Krav Maga would develop.

To escape the British authorities following the publication of his book, Feldenkrais fled to France where he met Judo masters Jigoro Kano, Shuichi Nagaoka and Kyuzo Mifune. They invited him to learn judo and to help develop it in Europe under the guidance of Mikinosuke Kawaishi in France, and Gunji Koizumi in the UK.

Feldenkrais (right) and Kawaishi practicing shime waza (choking techniques)

The discovery of Judo had an important influence on him. Particularly, the emphasis that judo puts on movement, mobility, balance, structure and using an aggressor's energy against himself.

During WW2, the British military asked Feldenkrais who had fled to England when war broke out, to teach British soldiers unarmed combat in a few short lessons. Realising that it would be difficult to reach many more soldiers, he decided to publish an illustrated manual titled Practical Unarmed Combat in which he observed:

"The ultimate value of an exercise lies in the actions your body will perform spontaneously, without conscious effort, long after you have forgotten how, when and where you learned it.” - (M.Feldenkrais 1942 p.15)

Sport Magen & Judo Shimushi

Following Moshe Feldenkrais' ground-breaking work, the 1930s witnessed the concerted efforts of several pioneers to design a coherent and effective programme for teaching hand-to-hand combat techniques across Jewish communities and settlements.

The main actors in this part of the story were:
  • Gershon Kofler (1906-1941)
  • Orde Charles Wingate (1903-1944)
  • Meishel Horovitz (1919-2009)
  • Yehuda Markus (1912-1945)

Gershon Kofler was the Haganah's leading figure of hand-to-hand fighting (and later the head instructor of the Palmach, Haganah's elite strike force) and the main person behind the development of Sport Magen or "defensive sport" (Mor 2019).

Gershon Kopler  practicing krav maga in 1941

The idea behind sport magen was to create a more effective way to develop athletic and combat sports training in order to improve self-defence abilities. The three combat disciplines were Jujitsu, Boxing and Wrestling (Mor 2019).

Kofler published a number of combat manuals in which he also explained the role of basic human reactions and the importance of situational awareness (Mor 2019). His book Sport Magen, Boxing and Ju-Jitsu (1938) is considered the authoritative document of Kapap.

Around the same time, a shift from a defensive approach to a more dynamic and offensive one occurred in Jewish military strategy (Mor 2019). This change was brought by British officer Orde Wingate who was an exponent of unconventional military thinking and the value of surprise tactics. Wingate made significant contributions to the training methods and fighting concepts of the Haganah, namely through the creation of the Special Night Squads.

"Face-to-face combat" (Krav Panim L'panim)

By the end of the decade, the Haganah had a unified method and coherent curriculum. At the time, this training was called Kapap (an acronym for Krav Panim L’panim "face-to-face combat").

In the early years, Kapap was not a system per se, but a mixture of rigorous physical conditioning, boxing, judo, jujutsu, karate, knife and stick fighting, firearms and explosives training, radio communications, wilderness survival training, combat first aid, etc...

Ultimately, the fighting style would be renamed Krav Maga.

The first Kapap instructor training course was organised in 1941. The chief instructors were Maishel Horowitz (stick fighting), Gershon Kofler (jujitsu), and Yitzhak Shtibel (boxing).

Horowitz had been task to develop and implement the stick fighting method. It was a mixture of local culture and Indian stick fighting tradition.

Maishel Horowitz training stick fighting

He famously ran courses that were composed of eight lessons of ninety minutes each. His method was based on Feldenkrais concept of "unconscious reaction", and the simultaneous block and attack concept.

Horowitz also developed the "breakdown teaching method", which emphasize teaching techniques in segments and not as one whole. This became one of the hallmarks of Krav-Maga.

Kofler was killed in action in 1941 and Yehuda Markus (who had learned judo and jujitsu during his childhood in Germany) took over his role in the development of sport magen. Markus died few years later in 1945 but his contribution was significant.

From Left to Right: Amnon Yona, Moshe Zohar, Yaakov Solomon, Yehuda Markus (1943)

The loss of Kofler and Markus in a short span of time was a blow for the community but the experience acquired and the concerted work done during the previous decade had born fruits and would result in a seminal text: Judo Shimushi (Hebrew for Useful/Practical/Applicable Judo).

"This book is important for two reasons: first, it defines the basic principles of Israeli combat disciplines which continue to be deployed by the IDF until the present day; second, it was used as the major reference source in 1953 when an IDF Krav-Maga committee was assembled to create a Krav-Maga manual for the army.” - (G. Mor 2019)

Until the 1950ies the terms Kapap and Krav Maga were used interchangeably. Since the 60ies the term Kapap has only been used to describe the training method of the early days or within certain units such as Sayeret Matkal or Yamam, that require more than basic hand-to-hand combat training.

Up to the late 1990ies, the Kapap combatives system was kept only for the use of Israel's special elite units. Then, Lieutenant Colonel Chaim Pe'er (who trained and graduated in Krav Maga under Imi Lichtenfeld) founded the International Kapap Federation.

Nowadays, Kapap (a.k.a Lotar) and Krav Maga are two different, albeit closely related, fighting systems. Both have their roots in the historical Kapap.

Although Krav Maga has become the most well known Israeli martial art, it has never been the only one.

Imi Lichtenfeld (1910-1998)

Imi Lichtenfeld, was born in 1910 and raised in Bratislava (Slovakia which was part of Czechoslovakia from 1918 to 1992). He was a renowned boxer, wrestlers and gymnast, winning several national and international championships in the late 1920ies.

In the mid-1930s, fascist and anti-semitic factions began to harass and assault the Jews of Bratislava. Lichtenfeld organized a group of boxers and wrestlers who took to the streets to defend their community against the growing numbers of nazi thugs.

Krav-maga founder Imi-Lichtenfeld

Imi quickly learned, however, that the aggressive and brutal nature of street fighting was quite different from competitive combat sports. It required a different mindset and different techniques.

Typically, street assaults were surprise attacks and the outcome would be determined within a few seconds. The loser would get extra kicks to the head and torso causing serious injuries.

The re-evaluation of his ideas about violence led him to put more emphasis on quick threat neutralisation. It also led him to develop the skills and techniques that would become the foundations of Krav Maga.

Learn more about the principles of Krav Maga

Like many Jews fleeing the Nazi persecution across Europe, Lichtenfeld decided to leave in 1940. The ship he boarded was supposed to take him to Palestine which he had visited in 1935, but the derelict vessel sank in the southeastern Aegean Sea.

Imi was picked up by a British ship on its way to Egypt where he joined the Czech legion which was under British command. During his time with the British military, he was engaged in operations mainly in Libya. He was also acquainted with the Fairbairn's system of hand-to-hand combat. Without doubt, Fairbairn's approach to fighting ("Gutter Fighting") strongly resonated with Imi.

"Get tough, get down in the gutter, win at all costs... I teach what is called ‘Gutter Fighting.’ There’s no fair play, no rules except one: kill or be killed” - W. Fairbairn

Lichtenfel eventually reached Palestine in 1942 where he was recruited by the head of the Haganah; a paramilitary organization that had been set up to defend the Jewish settlements. This organization later became the core of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

In 1944, Imi began training Haganah soldiers, including elite units such as Palmach and Palyam, in various fields such as physical fitness, swimming, wrestling and hand-to-hand combat.


The Israel Defense Forces (IDF)

When the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) were formed following the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, Imi Lichtenfeld became chief instructor at the IDF School of Combat Fitness.

There, for 20 years, he developed and refined his hand-to-hand combat system. To bring each soldier to adequate level of Combat experience in the very little training time allotted, Imi was forced to streamline his teaching and design a system that would be suitable for any male or female soldier.

"The Shortest and the Fastest way is the best" - I. Lichtenfeld

Imi acted as the IDF Krav Maga Chief Instructor from 1948 to 1976. His long time student and first black belt Eli Avikzar succeeded him in this role as Chief Instructor at the Fighting Fitness Academy (which certifies IDF Krav Maga Instructors). Under Eli's guidance, the system became more professional and, proving its efficiency in fighting units, it also became more widely accepted.

Eli continued to develop Krav Maga within the IDF until his retirement in 1987.

In 1980 Boaz Aviram, Eli's assistant, became the third person to hold the position of Krav Maga Chief Instructor at Fighting Fitness Academy. He was the last IDF head instructor to have studied directly under Imi Lichtenfeld.

Blaming the civilian schools of Krav Maga for a declined in quality in the system, Aviram who further tested techniques in real situations, later founded Pure Krav Maga. His work, which he systematically documented, is based on a highly structured training method. The focus is on (real life) reaction time and efficient sequential execution.


The Israeli Krav Maga Association (IKMA)

After he finished his active duty, Imi Lichtenfeld began adapting and modifying Krav Maga to police forces and civilian needs.

The first Krav Maga course for civilian took place at the Wingate Institute in Netanya, Israel, in 1971, under the direct supervision of Imi.

Among some of the first students to receive a black belt in the civilian curriculum were: Haim Gidon, Eli Avikzar, Eyal Yanilov, Richard Douieb (France), Raphy Elgrissy, Haim Zut, Kobi Lichtenstein, Yaron Lichtenstein, Miki Assulin (GB).

In 1974 Imi retired from teaching and handed Eli Avikzar the training center in Netanya.


In 1978 the "Federation for Krav Maga and Self Defense" was created with the assistance of Imi's top students: Barak Yehoshua (Head of the Professional Committee), Tsvi Morik (Secretary), Haim Zut, Eli Avikzar, Raphy Algrisi, Haim Gidon, and Oskar Klein.

Eli Avikzar was elected to the head of rank committee and Colonel David Ben Asher was elected to the Executive Director.

The name of the organization was changed to "Israeli Krav Maga Association" (IKMA) in 1980.

Under Imi, components from several traditional martial arts were incorporated into Krav Maga training: Judo in 1965, and later in the 1970ies, Aikido under the influence of Eli Avikzar, and more groundwork by Haim Gidon.

Imi and his senior instructors worked together to improve the system by incorporating techniques from other martial arts and combat sports, counter-defences and modified weapons defences (particularly knife defence techniques).

Beyond the borders of Israel

In the early 80ies, a group of senior instructors traveled to the USA to demonstrate their system. The first Krav Maga training seminar outside Israel was directed by Eyal Yanilov in 1981.

With the emergence of the second generation of instructors came internal conflicts over the management of the organisation and differences in opinion over the efficacy of techniques. This led to the creation of a number of splinter organisations all claiming to teach the true Krav Maga!

In 1994 Haim Gidon was elected as IKMA president.

With the development of Krav Maga on the international scene, arose the need for an international organization. In 1995 the International Krav Maga Federation was founded by a number of Imi's students such as Avi Moyal (the actual IKMF chairman), Eyal Yanilov and Gabi Noah.

Imi Lichtenfeld died in Netanya, Israel, on January 9, 1998 at the age of 87.

Krav Maga Instructors: The 1st Generation

The first Dan 1 Black Belt levels issued by Imi Lichtenfeld:

-Eli Avikzar

-Raphy Elgrissy (also spelt: Rafi Elgrissi)

-Haim Zut
-Shmuel Kutzviel
-Haim Hakani
-Shlomo Avsira
-Victor Bracha

-Yaron Lichtenstein
-Avner Hazan

-Avi Abeceedon

-Miki Asulin

Learn more about Krav Maga grading system

Eli Avikzar (1947-2004)

Eli Avikzar trained with Imi from 1964 to 1974 and received the first black belt (IKMA) from the founder in 1971.

That same year he also received a black belt in Judo and later received his Aikido brown belt in France and a black belt from the European Federation in 1977.

He was awarded 8th Dan in Krav Maga by Imi in 1985.

As the IKMA head of rank committee and chief instructor, Eli himself awarded black belts to many individuals including Avi Avisadon, Eyal Yanilov, Haim Gidon, and Boaz Aviram.

Striving for perfection, Eli Avikzar was able to extract the essence of training techniques and methods from the various Martial Arts he'd learned.

Particularly preoccupied with efficiency, Eli used Imi's teaching and principles as stepping stones to further developed and refined Krav Maga.

Discord with Imi led Avikzar to resigned from his position at the IKMA. In 1987 he founded the "Krav Magen Israeli”(KAMI) which he directed until his death in 2004.

Avi Avisadon, who was Eli's assistant at the Fighting Fitness Academy and then served as the Head of Krav Maga at the Israeli Navy commando, became KAMI's Chief Instructor.


Raphy Elgrissy (1945-...)

Raphy Elgrissy was born in Casablanca (Morocco) where he started boxing at the age of 16. He made a name for himself as a talented and tough fighter. As a young man, he was recruited by the Jewish Agency to help members of the community migrate to Israel.

He moved to Israel in 1963 and joined the IDF. While in Netanya, he reconnected with boxing and, in 1964, was introduced to Imi Lichtenfeld who was the Chief instructor of physical fitness and hand-to-hand combat at the Army training facility at the Wingate Institute.

The two men got along well and became friends. Imi believed the more exposure you had to a variety of martial arts and combat sports (such as grappling, judo, aikido, etc), the better your Krav Maga would become, so he always encouraged his students to trained in as many styles and techniques as possible. Consequently, Raphy Elgrissy studied various styles, namely Judo and Aikido in which he also earned black belts.

Raphy Elgrissy set up his first dojo in Natanya in 1967 and, after Imi passed away, he founded Krav Maga Elgrissy.

It was through his connection with an American businessman (Danny Abrahami) that, in 1981, six instructors (Eli Avikazar, Raphy Elgrissy, Reuven Mymon, Eyal Yanilov, Hayim zut, and Imi Lichtenfeld himself) to the US for a demonstration Tour for the Jewish Community Center of America.

Haim Zut (1935-...)

It was during his military service, in 1952, that Haim Zut first met Imi Lichtenfeld who was the Chief Instructor of Krav Maga in the IDF at that time.

Haim served in the IDF and trained Krav Maga until the Sinai campaign in 1956. After his release from the military, he settled in Pardes-Hanna where he worked with underprivileged youth.

In 1963, he received his license to teach martial arts from the Wingate Institute (Orde Wingate Institute for Physical Education and Sports). His first class was held in Hadera. Then followed, Pardes-Hanna and Gan Shemu'el.

That same year, Imi Lichtenfeld was released from his own military duty and started to organise the Krav Maga civilian course. Haim was among the first students to attend the original instructor course in 1971. And, subsequently, became one of Imi's first black belts and top students.

As one of Imi’s first instructors, Haim would also become one of the co-founder of both the Federation for Krav Maga and Self-Defense, and the Israeli Krav Maga Association (IKMA).

Deeply insterested in martial arts instruction, physical training and physiology, Haim studied at the Wingate Institute and received a number of diplomas and certifications in these fields, making him one of the most knowledgeable Krav Maga instructor.

In 1993, he decided to distance himself from the Israeli Krav Maga Association (IKMA) because of the constant infighting and internal politics, and created the Association of Krav Maga International Kapap (a.k.a Haim Zut krav Maga).

Haim Zut receiving his belt from imi Lichtenfeld

Yaron Lichtenstein (1953-...)

Yaron Lichtenstein trained under Krav Maga founder Imi Lichtenfeld for 27 years. He received his black belt in 1978 from Imi and later in 1994 was awarded 9th Dan by Imi too.

Yaron served in the Isreali forces during the Yom-Kippur war in 1973 where he was seriously wounded.

After recovering from his injuries, Yaron helped Imi in his endeavour to spread Krav Maga across Israel. The following years, Yaron taught the military, the security services and the police.

He opened the Bukan school of Krav Maga in 1977. Just before he passed away in 1994, Imi gave Yaron the rank of 9th Dan.

In 2002, Yaron decided to move to Brazil.

Yaron Lichtenstein with Krav Maga Founder Imi Lichtenfeld



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