krav maga history interview

History is a very tricky business. It all depends on who writes the history and what their agenda might be. (Political, religious, economic, ego). Often, important facts are omitted if they do not suit one's personal objective. Other facts are often modified or adjusted. Thus the saying, history belongs to the victor.  The loser in the battle died and could not write the history. 

In modern times for history to be accepted as plausible there must be several different sources, this was not the case long ago. Thus we must be careful what we read. As Bob Dylan wrote, "Trees that stood a thousand years suddenly may fall." that means, beliefs that were held for many years, even thousands of years, may be proven to be false, not factual. This can be very painful.

In our own times, often, many years after an event takes place, the truth is revealed. The information comes from original documents, or in some cases from living testimony, and we need to reevaluate our former conclusions.

At IKI (Israeli Krav International) we care about practical street application more than about martial arts lineage or history. However, we see that in the Krav Maga community there has developed a cult worship of "everything Imi". It is important to understand the history of Krav Maga and that it is incorrect to say that "Imi Lichtenfeld invented, or created, Krav Maga." or that only he and his disciples have a right to teach it.  This is simply false. 

If an organization can blindly make this statement without proper research, than what should we think of their techniques? Perhaps those too were never properly researched. Are we supposed to trust such people who just "cut and paste" information without proper research?

Growing up in Israel I had never heard the name Imi Lichtenfeld. Even the term Krav Maga was not considered important. It was only in the USA that I began to hear both these names on a regular basis. Even spending 18 years training with Itay Gil that name (Lichtenfeld) never came up. In Israel most people are just concerned with what works and what does not. 

The goal of Krav Maga, was, and is, to protect people. We are not the Romans who were concerned with building statues and preserving one's name for eternity. We are taught not to worship idols of any kind. So let us not crate any Krav Maga idols. Let us not take a man of flesh and blood and make him a god. 

It is also a mistake to get too hung up on a name. A name is just a way of labeling something, it neither makes not creates anything.

No one holds a monopoly on Krav Maga, not legally or historically. 

The following is an excerpt from an interview with Noah Gross, Israeli researcher, martial arts historian. These are his words.

Question: Who were the most influential martial arts instructors in Israel at the time of the development of Kapap?

Noah Gross: There were many instructors of Kapap in the 1940's but I'd have to say that there were only a handful who formulated the core of Kapap as an approach as well as the content. They would have to be Gershon Kopler (Jujutsu and Boxing), Yehuda Markus (Jujutsu/Judo) and Maishel Hurwitz (short stick and walking stick methods). Another name worth mentioning is Yitzhak Shtibel (Boxing). 

Question:  Could you tell us what was Kapap based on and who could teach it? 

Noah GrossAt the time, back in the 1940's, Kapap was not an integrated system like Krav Maga is today, there was no grand master or head of the system. It was rather a paramilitary and then military approach to training combatants in hand-to-hand combat. Instructors could be trained in one of several disciplines included in Kapap or all of them. They taught Jujutsu, Boxing, Knife fighting, short stick method, walking stick method, stone throwing and bayonet.

Over the years the courses evolved and material was formalized into set lessons for instructors to teach according to manuals. So you could have an instructor teaching after 2 months of training while at the same time you could have another instructor with years of experience, the level of proficiency varied a great deal. The head instructors such as Gershon Kopler, Yehuda Markus, and Yitzhak Shtibel were men with many years of training and experience. 

Question: Could you briefly tell us who was Yehuda Markus?

Noah Gross: Yehuda Markus immigrated to Israel from Germany. As a teenager he studied Judo through the police who taught Jujutsu and Judo in Germany. At the time of his arrival in Israel, the head instructor of Jujutsu for the Palmach and Haganah (early Israeli military units, pre-state) (Gershon Kopler) had just died in a secret mission. 

Yehuda Markus was chosen to replace Kopler as head instructor of Jujutsu.

He was a very strong man and considered very professional. His students respected him and loved him very much for his kindness as a person.

Markus was shot and killed by mistake in a training accident in 1945 at the age of 33. He is commemorated by his students in the Palmach in a manual of practical Judo published in 1948. This manual served as the basis of material in hand-to-hand combat in the IDF and what became Krav Maga, for many years. 

No evidence that Imi made any significant or major contribution to its formulation up until 1948 

Imi Arrived in 1942

Question: The public knows very well the figure of Imi Sde Or (Lichtenfeld), but few have been in possession of as many official military documents as you have uncovered in your research.

Can you tell us when Imi was recruited and by whom?

Noah Gross: Imi arrived in Israel in 1942 and was recruited into the Palmach. He was recruited by Musa Zohar, chief instructor of physical training for the Palmach. Musa Zohar heard about him from several members of the self-defense group Imi headed in Bratislava in the late 1930's.

Question: When did Imi become a Kapap Instructor?  (note Kapap was an early name for Krav Maga, it is not a different style or art, just an earlier name). 

Noah GrossImi became a Kapap instructor when he joined the Palmach and was well respected for his skill and inventiveness. Most likely after he was recruited he had undergone some kind of training to teach him the curriculum of Kapap and the methods of teaching it in the Palmach. This was standard procedure for anyone in this organization. When Markus was brought in to replace Kopler, it was Maishel Hurwitz's job to show him how things were done in the Palmach. As Maishel told me: "I had nothing to teach him in Judo, but I had to show him how we did things in a practical manner." He spent two months with Markus until Markus was ready for his position.

When the State of Israel and its army, the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) were formed in 1948, Imi was recruited into the staff of the physical training school where he was one of 8 Kapap instructors.   

Question: When did Imi's importance as a self-defense instructor increase? And why did this occur?

Noah Gross: Imi had a lot of experience in wrestling and boxing and self-defense still from his days in Bratislava. Then he served as an instructor in the Palmach for several years after which he was inducted into the IDF and continued to serve as an instructor. By 1948 he was already very well respected and considered one of the leading instructors of Kapap with a focus Jujutsu and knife. Over the next decade between 1948 and 1958 Imi became the lead instructor in Kapap - Krav Maga. 

Question: Was Imi the developer of the concept of "Krav Maga"? If not, who was?

Noah Gross: This is an interesting question with a complex answer. First we must ask what are the concepts of Krav Maga and more importantly when were they formalized?

Krav Maga has had several phases of development some of which are easy to recognize and define and others which are harder to define.

One way of looking at it is as follows, and this is only a general schematic division of time. 

The first stage would be Kapap from 1940 - 1948 

The second stage would be Kapap - Krav Maga, 1948 - 1958 

The third stage would be Krav Maga 1958 - 1964

And the next would be civilian Krav Maga, 1964 and on. 

Of course, it did not stope then but for this discussion it's less important. 

What is critical to understand is that Imi came into an organization that was heavily into hand-to-hand combat and already had a formalized training method with a defined curriculum in the various disciplines of hand-to-hand combat. This organization had a structure and hierarchy of command very much like a small army or a large Special - Forces unit. Imi was integrated into this structure as part of it, not something separate, so while he did have an influence on it so too was he influenced by it.

Given the known material documentation of the concepts behind Kapap and the curriculum taught, there is no evidence that Imi made any significant or major contribution to its formulation up until 1948. It had in fact well defined concepts and formalized methods by 1942, the time of his arrival in Israel.

Then when examining the material taught in the IDF during the early and mid 1950's it becomes clear that the material is based on the Kapap of the 1940's. Although the term Krav Maga starts being used in official documents in late 1948 it is not to be mistaken as signifying any changes in approach to hand-to-hand  combat  nor in the material being taught. In fact both names Kapap and Krav Maga are used on official documents interchangeably as late as 1958.

Even when in 1953 a committee is formed with the purpose of reviewing the material being taught in hand-to-hand combat or Krav Maga it is asked to choose 35 techniques from the broader curriculum. This reflects a change in approach from much higher up in the military hierarchy at the planning level were an analysis of the needs of the military are made and it is decided to slim down the amount of material being taught. Imi's significance during  the 1950's  is based more on his being the most experienced instructor and much less on any kind of innovation and reformulation of Krav Maga.

At the same time one should be aware that the process of change is constant, the military is constantly changing its analysis of threats adjustment of its forces to address those threats and the adjustment of the training material and methods for its soldiers. This includes hand to hand combat as well. 

In addition when a person is training and teaching the same material over extended periods of time there is a process of adjustment and modification. Given these two facts and the knowledge that Imi was working with this material from 1942 to 1960 one can expect that he made changes and adjustments.

When examining what was taught as Krav Maga in 1960 in the IDF it is evident that Imi did bring in some concepts that were not present in the early 1950's. Of note is the term 360 defense. Aside from the great respect Imi is due for being a hand-to-hand combat instructor in the Palmach and IDF and leading its instruction in the IDF in the late 1950's until his retirement, his choice of teaching it to civilians is of great significance. The process of working with the material and adjusting and modifying it continued in the civilian version of Krav Maga headed by Imi well into the 1980's. This phase I am far less familiar with so I will not comment on it.

Question: It is said that Imi took already existing techniques from other systems such as boxing and wrestling and adapted them, what do you think about this?

Noah Gross: This is an interesting point I find a little ironic. 

Kapap which is what Krav Maga was born out of was based on Jujutsu/Judo, Boxing and knife and stick. So from its beginning it had at its disposal all of what these disciplines had to offer.  Over time the curriculum was slimmed down to address the needs and limitations of military training.

How then can one say that after 20 years of this material being taught and used can someone bring in material from the very same sources it is based on? 

The only reasonable answer is that now it was being taught to civilians there was a need for more material, and far less for practical reasons. 

The system worked fine for the military for more than 20 years without any additions. And in fact when I examine military Krav Maga manuals as late as 1973 almost a decade after civilian Krav Maga started the curriculum is identical in 90% to 1964, 1960, and even 1953. 

Question: Why are all the techniques of Krav Maga attributed to Imi while other important figures such as Markus are forgotten?

Noah Gross: I think this happened for several reasons. By the time Imi retired he was viewed as Krav Maga, the people who knew him in the army, soldiers and commanders and those who knew him from the Palmach, all saw him as the leading figure and authority on hand-to-hand combat. Back then no one was interested in the history of its development, there were no ranks and belts, organizations, and grand masters, it was after all a hand-to-hand combat system in the military and nothing else. So no one was concerned with who developed what and when. This started being an issue many years later and many years after Imi founded civilian Krav Maga. Over time many people forgot the history which from the beginning very few people knew and so it became a fact, Imi invented Krav Maga. No less less important is the fact that until 1964 when Imi opened his first civilian club no one cared what the system was called, many knew it as Kapap while others knew it as Krav Maga, and no one thought they were two different systems.

Markus and Kopler and many other instructors died in the 1940's while other instructors moved on into civilian life and left their past military history behind. By the time I started doing research in 1999, Krav Maga as a civilian system and military system had become so big, so wide spread around the world, that really no one bothered to question the "official" history given by Krav Maga people who most of the time are simply passing on what they were told. 

Learn more about Krav Maga history...

Krav Maga History

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