The beginning of the system that would become Krav Maga in Israel was developed in Hungary and Czechoslovakia in the 1930s by Imi Lichtenfeld, also known as Imi Sde-Or. (Sde-Or – “Light Field” – is a calque of his surname into Hebrew.) He first taught his fighting system in Bratislava in order to help protect the Jewish community from Nazi militias. Upon arriving in the British Mandate of Palestine prior to the establishment of the Jewish state, Imi began teaching hand-to-hand combat to the Haganah, the Jewish underground army. With the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Imi became the Chief Instructor of Physical Fitness and Krav Maga at the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) School of Combat Fitness. He served in the IDF for about 20 years, during which time he continued to develop and refine his hand-to-hand combat method. He died in January 1998 in Netanya, Israel
Prior to 1980, all experts in Krav Maga lived in Israel. That year marks the beginning of contact between Israeli Krav Maga experts and interested students in the United States. In 1981, a group of six Krav Maga instructors traveled to the US to offer demonstrations of the system, primarily at local Jewish Community Centers. This, in turn, led to demonstrations at the New York Field Office of the FBI and the FBI’s Main Training Center. The result was a visit by 22 people from the US to Israel in the summer of 1981 to attend a basic Krav Maga instructor course. The graduates from this course returned to the US and began to establish training facilities in their local areas. Additional students traveled to Israel in 1984 and again in 1986 to become instructors. At the same time, instructors from Israel continued to visit the US. Law Enforcement training in the US began in 1985.
After Imi’s death, a number of different schools and associations developed around the world. Although there is an ongoing debate as to who may claim to be Imi’s legitimate successor(s) and whether the term “Krav Maga” refers to a specific martial art or is simply a generic term (much like Boxing).
In Krav Maga, there are no hard-and-fast rules. It is not a sport, and there are no competitions. All the techniques focus on maximum efficiency in real-life conditions. Krav Maga generally assumes a no quarter situation; the attacks and defenses are intended to inflict the most pain possible on the opponent in the least amount of time. Groin strikes, headbutts, and other efficient and potentially brutal attacks are emphasized.
The basic idea is to first deal with the immediate threat (being choked, for example), prevent the attacker from re-attacking, and then neutralize the attacker, proceeding through all steps in a straightforward manner, despite the rush of adrenaline that occurs in such an attack. The emphasis is put on taking the initiative from the attacker as soon as possible.
Although Krav Maga shares many techniques with other martial arts, such as Boxing, Savate and Muay Thai (for the punches, kicks, elbows and knees) or Ju-Jitsu, Judo and Wrestling (for the grappling and disarming techniques), the training is often quite different. It stresses fighting under worst-case conditions (for example, against several opponents, when protecting someone else, with one arm unusable, when dizzy, or against armed opponents).
Training in Krav Maga is an aerobic workout, and relies heavily on pads. Students take turns holding pads and doing combatives against the pads. This is important because it allows the student to practice the technique at full strength, and the student holding the pad learns a little of what it feels like to get hit. It can be almost as taxing to hold a pad as to practice against one. Some schools incorporate “Strike and Fight,” which consists of full-contact sparring intended to familiarize the student with the stresses of a violent situation.
Training may employ a speaker system blasting loud music, stroboscope and/or fog machine meant to train the student to ignore peripheral distractions and focus on causing as much damage as possible. Training might also contain ways to deal with situations which could end in fights. Physical and verbal methods to avoid violence whenever possible are taught.
A typical Krav Maga session in a civilian school is about an hour long and mixes aerobic training with self-defense teaching. As levels increase, the instructors focus a little less on aerobic training and slightly more on combatives. First, the instructor will run a very intense drill to get the class’s heart rates up. Then, after stretching, the instructor will teach two or three self-defense techniques. In the beginning the techniques will either be combatives (punches, hammer-fists, elbows, knees and roundhouse kicks, for example) or grappling (breaking out of chokes or wrist-grabs, getting out from under an opponent while on one’s back). After that, the class usually moves to a drill that combines the techniques just taught with an aerobic technique. Finally, there is the final drill intended to burn out the students. Depending on the class – and on the instructor’s mood – this drill may be at the very beginning or at the end of the class.