Krav Maga – Origins and History

A look into the origins of Krav Maga, the official hand-to-hand fighting system of the Israeli Defence Force (IDF).

Brief History

About Imi

Imre Lichtenfeld was born in 1910 in Budapest, Austro-Hungary to a Jewish family 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 middleweight divisions).  That same year, he also won the national boxing championship and an international gymnastics championship. During the ensuing decade, Lichtenfeld’s athletic activities focused mainly on wrestling, both as a contestant and a trainer.

Imre Lichtenfeld (founder of Krav Maga) as a wrestler in his youth.

Bratislava (Slovakia)

1930-1940 was not a good decade for the Jews in Europe.  Fascism and extreme nationalism were on the rise and for various unfair reasons (largely economic/political) the Jewish population were about to become the scapegoats. In 1939 Slovakia was a vassal state of the German Third Reich.  Jewish citizens of Slovakia’s capital Bratislava (around 12% of the population) became subject to discrimination and persecution.  Although a skilled boxer and wrestler, Imi (himself a Jew) realized that self-defence and sports fighting were two different things.  As such he began to build a repertoire of useful techniques as a result of these experiences.  He used these techniques to help defend the Jewish quarter from anti-Semitic activity in Bratislava during that time. 

The Jewish population of Bratislava being expelled from the city by the Nazi’s during WWII.

Unfortunately for Imi, the effectiveness of those techniques made him quite unpopular with pro-fascist authorities. Eventually, he was forced to flee his homeland in 1940 which was probably very good timing. Starting in 1941, the Jewish population of Bratislava was forcibly expelled from the capital. Many were sent to labour camps and later deported to the mass-murder camp of Auschwitz.  Very few returned after the war.


Lichtenfeld eventually migrated to Palestine (now Israel) after WWII.  Soon after his arrival, Imi began teaching self-defence to an underground paramilitary organization called Haganah.  Haganah were attempting to create the independent state of Israel.  They were involved in a war with the native Palestinians and the British at that time.  Since it was illegal to carry weapons, the fighters went into battle with knives and sticks.  Their knowledge of fighting techniques such as Imi’s techniques and Kapap (another Israeli fighting system) proved very successful.

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Imre Lichtenfeld (founder of Krav Maga) as a wrestler in his youth.

The Haganah and Israeli army defeated the Arab forces during the War of Independence. Shortly after Israel’s declaration of independence (14 May 1948), the Haganah merged with other paramilitary forces to form the IDF (Israel Defence Force).  Imi became the Chief Instructor of Physical Training and the lead teacher of CQC (Close Quarters Combat). Eventually, his unique fighting system became known as Krav Maga.

Imi served in the IDF for 15 years, during which time he continued to develop and refine his methods. In 1964 he left the military though continued to supervise the instruction of Krav Maga in both military and law-enforcement contexts.  He also aimed to adapt Krav Maga for civilian needs  In 1978.  Lichtenfeld founded the non-profit Israeli Krav Maga Association with several senior instructors. He died in January 1998 in Netanya, Israel.

Eli Avikzar

No mention of Krav Maga can be made without Eli Avikvar. Eli Alikzar was born in Casablanca, Morocco emigrating to Israel in 1963.  In 1964, Eli began training with Imi Lichtenfeld at his institute in Netanya, eventually becoming his senior student. 

(Left) Eli Avikvar with Imi Lichtenfeld. (Right) Eli demonstrates to students in a seminar.


In 1965 Eli began training in a range of other martial arts.  He had ideas of integrating more traditional martial arts into Krav Maga. These included Karate, Judo, Aikido, Savate and (Japanese) Jujitsu. After gaining experience in these martial arts, Eli and Imi incorporated some techniques into Krav Maga.  They aimed to develop new techniques which both improved and simplified the system. In 1968 Eli began working as an instructor alongside Imi.  A belt ranking system was finally established.  It was at that time that Imi and Eli volunteered to train elite units within the IDF in Krav Maga. 


Imre would retire in 1974 and when he did he gave Eli control over the Krav Maga training centre in Netanya. Eli continued to develop new techniques while preserving Imi’s philosophy and vision.  That any person, including the weak and disabled, should be able to defend themselves using Krav Maga.

In 1976, Avikzar joined the permanent force of the IDF, as head of the Krav Maga section. The role of Krav Maga in the army advanced greatly after Eli’s appointment. More courses became available and every IDF Physical Education instructor was obliged to learn Krav Maga. These instructors were then required to pass on their Krav Maga skills to their units.  Krav Maga in the IDF continues to this day to improve through the constant development and modernisation of original Krav Maga techniques.


Eli Alikvar played a major role in making Krav Maga a more combat-efficient, professional and highly respected fighting system. It has certainly proved its effectiveness within the combat units of the IDF. 

Eli retired from service in 1987.  In 2004 he passed away with his last request, “That every child would know how to defend themselves”.

Krav Maga Today

Krav Maga in its modern form has since been refined for both civilian and military applications. It is still the official martial art used by the IDF units today.  Several closely related variations have been developed and adapted for use by law enforcement and intelligence organizations. These include Israel’s Mossad and Shin Bet intelligence arms.  

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Military personnel undergo Krav Maga training in Israel.

The effectiveness of Krav Maga has led to US units adopting it as their choice for CQC training.  These include the FBI, SWAT units of the NYPD and the US Special Operations Forces. On a civilian level, there are several organizations teaching variations of Krav Maga internationally.

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