Krav Maga (Hebrew קרב מגע: “contact combat”) is a self-defense and military hand to hand combat system developed in Israel. It came to prominence following its adoption by various Israeli Security Forces and is now used by military and law enforcement personnel, as well as civilians, around the world. The version of Krav Maga taught in civilian martial arts classes is more often a simplified version that emphasizes personal self-defense, and is likely to exclude the killing techniques taught to the military, or the holds and come-alongs taught to police forces; there are legal proscriptions in some countries which govern and constrain the teaching of hazardous or life-threatening techniques to civilians.
The generic name in Hebrew means “close combat”. The word maga (מגע) means “contact” and the word krav (קרב) means “combat”, but the literal translation “contact combat,” can be misconstrued as something like “kickboxing” or “full contact karate.” English-speakers often shorten the term to Krav.
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), it is generally accepted that there are five mainstream Krav Maga umbrella organizations:
- The Israeli Krav Maga Association (IKMA)
- The International Krav Maga Federation (IKMF)
- The Krav Maga Association of America (KMAA)
- Krav Maga Incorporated (KMI)
- Commando Krav Maga (CKM)
There exists today, 12 different Krav Maga “styles” available to the general public.