History of Krav Maga

Imre Lichtenfeld (also known as Imi Sde-Or) was born in 1910 in Budapest, Hungary and grew up in Bratislava (Slovakia). Lichtenfeld became active in a wide range of sports, including gymnastics, wrestling, and boxing. In 1928, Lichtenfeld won the Slovak Youth Wrestling Championship, and in 1929 the adult championship (light and middle weight divisions). That same year, he also won the national boxing championship and an international gymnastics championship. During the ensuing decade, Imi’s athletic activities focused mainly on wrestling, both as a contestant and a trainer.

In the mid-1930s, anti-Semitic riots began to threaten the Jews of Bratislava, Czechoslovakia. Lichtenfeld became the leader of a group of Jewish boxers and wrestlers who took to the streets to defend Jewish neighborhoods against the growing numbers of national socialist party and anti-Semitic thugs. Lichtenfeld quickly discovered, however, that actual fighting was very different from competition fighting, and although boxing and wrestling were good sports, they were not always practical for the aggressive and brutal nature of street combat. It was then that he started to re-evaluate his ideas about fighting and started developing the skills and techniques that would eventually become Krav Maga. Having become a thorn in the side of the equally anti-Semitic local authorities, Lichtenfeld left his home, with his family and friends in 1940; on the last refugee ship to escape Europe.

After making his way to Israel, Lichtenfeld joined Israel’s pre-state Haganah paramilitary organization to protect Jewish refugees from Arabs. In 1944 Lichtenfeld began training fighters in his areas of expertise: physical fitness, swimming, wrestling, use of the knife, and defence against knife attacks. During this period, Lichtenfeld trained several elite units of the Haganah including Palmach (striking force of the Haganah and forerunner of the special units of the Israel Defense Forces) and the Pal-Yam, as well as groups of police officers.

Krav Maga lesson in paratrooper school in Israel, 1955

In 1948, when the State of Israel was founded and the IDF was formed, Lichtenfeld became Chief Instructor for Physical Fitness and Krav Maga at the IDF School of Combat Fitness. He served in the IDF for about 20 years, during which time he developed and refined his unique method for self-defense and hand-to-hand combat. Self-defense was not a new concept, since nearly all martial arts had developed some form of defensive techniques in their quest for tournament or sport dominance. However, self-defense was based strictly upon the scientific and dynamic principles of the human body. In 1965 judo training was added as part of the Krav Maga training, and until 1968 there were no grades in Krav Maga. Then a trainee’s grades were determined largely by his knowledge in judo.

In 1968 Eli Avikzar, Imi’s principal student and first black belt, began learning aikido and in 1971 left for France where he received a brown belt in aikido. Upon his return, Eli started working as an instructor alongside Imi where they worked together to improve Krav Maga by incorporating aikido and counter defenses into Krav Maga. Then in 1974 Imi retired and handed Eli Avikzar the Krav Maga training center in Netanya. Shortly after, in 1976, Eli joined the permanent force of IDF, as head of the Krav Maga section. The role of Krav Maga in the army advanced greatly after Eli’s appointment. More courses were given and every P.E. instructor was obliged to learn Krav Maga. Eli continued to develop Krav Maga within the IDF until his retirement in 1987. Up to this date, Eli had trained 80,000 male soldiers and 12,000 female soldiers.

Further pursuing excellence as a student of martial arts, Eli went to Germany in 1977 and received a black belt in aikido from the European Federation. Then in 1978 the Krav Maga association was established, and in 1989, as an active member of the judo association, Eli Avikzar helped to establish the professional and rank committees by founding the KIsraeli Krav Maga Association (IKMA or KAMI). Eli retired as the Chief Krav Maga instructor in 1987 and Boaz Aviram became the third person to hold the position, being the last head instructor to have studied directly with both Lichtenfeld and Avikzar.