The year was 1987 when the first intifada started. Just after I had joined a Jerusalem judo club, our instructor told us he was going to make a change in our practice sessions: We would now divide our classes between judo and Krav Maga.
“As a person who has gone through some wars in this country,” he explained, “I can tell you that today’s riots are not going to disappear quickly. The streets in Israel are going to be much less safe, and I want you to be equipped with a martial art more practical than judo.”
I didn’t like Krav Maga’s brutality and violence. I eventually left it and judo for the study of aikido, which aims at self-defense without unnecessary harm to the attacker.
But I did appreciate having learned Krav Maga as a modern martial art. Every martial art is limited by its martial culture. Every war culture, whether between armies or street fighters, has its own ethical values, its own rules. Traditional martial arts are bound by what is permitted in the cultures that developed them and the arms that were used when the arts were developed. Thus, every traditional martial art contains anachronism: In the modern street, you will not be attacked in the same way you would have been in traditional Japan.
Krav Maga is known for its focus on realworld situations and efficient, brutal counterattacks. It answers challenges that traditional martial arts do not.
Krav Maga was derived from street-fighting skills developed by Hungarian-Israeli martial artist Imi Lichtenfeld, who made use of his training as a boxer and wrestler to defend the Jewish quarter against fascist groups in the then-Czechoslovakian city of Bratislava in the 1930s. In the late 1940s, Lichtenfeld immigrated to Israel and began to provide combat training lessons to what would become the Israel Defense Forces, which went on to develop the system now known as Krav Maga. It has since been refined for civilian, police and military applications.
Krav Maga is about tachles — translated, very imperfectly, as brass tacks. A key principle is finishing a fight as quickly as possible; therefore, all attacks are aimed toward the most vulnerable parts of the body. In Krav Maga you will not find any of those elements of Zen so crucial in Eastern martial arts. A Krav Maga practitioner is focused only on efficiency.
Since Krav Maga is taught in the IDF, most Israelis encounter it one way or another. But most do not practice it after they leave the IDF, despite the fact that martial arts are a fairly common sport in Israel. Israelis’ abandonment of Krav Maga does not reflect an absence of Israeli martial pride or even Krav Maga’s brutality. Many Israelis, for instance, practice forms of karate that are nowhere as fine or sensitive as aikido. Instead, the problem of Krav Maga, in my opinion, is its lack of values.
Israelis search for meaning. Survival is not enough. Perhaps the tangible value of martial arts is part of what attracts so many in Israel, but martial arts also answer some need for meaning that is lacking in modern secular life. There is no question that Zen as a philosophy also attracts many Israelis. Certain values, shared by Zen and Judaism, touch the deepest Jewish feelings.
What attracted me in aikido, the martial art I chose, were its values, the Jewish principles on which I was raised. In aikido, peace and harmony are real values that are reflected in the art. One responds to violence with a gentle gesture not to turn the other cheek but as a matter of martial wisdom. An aikidoka, or aikido practitioner, believes in the power to win through gentleness.
Aikido has another value that is no less important: It teaches the avoidance of self-centeredness. When practicing aikido, one focuses on one’s partner, not on oneself. Moreover, one does so at the most vulnerable moment, facing the most difficult challenge — that is, while being attacked. At this moment, instead of falling into a natural posture of self-preservation, an aikidoka is taught to focus on the opponent’s body and soul.
Judaism as a religion and a culture has developed philosophy, ethics, even music and art; martial arts are not its claim to fame. In a historical moment in need of Jewish warriors, when Jews in many places around the globe need to know how to defend themselves, we have Krav Maga. It reflects the famed strength of the IDF, but I would have been happier with a martial art that is more graceful, peaceful and gentle. It would not be a Jewish martial art, but it would be a martial art that better suits Judaism. n
Joseph Isaac Lifshitz is a senior fellow in the department of philosophy, political theory and religion at the Shalem Center. This article was first published by Jewish Ideas Daily (www.jewish ideasdaily.com) and is reprinted with permission.