Israeli Martial Arts: A Brief Timeline

Dr. Grinberg holds a Ph.D. in History and currently serves as the Head of the Krav Maga and Riot Division of the Israeli Police Department. He is a veteran of the IDF where he served in a Special Operations unit, and also in the Israeli SWAT team. Dr. Grinberg is a certified Military Krav Maga instructor through the IDF and also holds a 4th degree Black Belt in Shoto Ryu Karate.

Kapap קפא”פ and Krav Maga קרב מגע are the two most well known Israeli fighting systems. They captivate the imaginations of millions of people around the world. I will discuss the many misconceptions regarding Israeli Martial Arts and its origins. We look at the historical unfolding of events as accurately as possible, recognizing the various stages of development of Israeli fighting systems, and attributing specific innovations, changes and adjustments to those responsible for the process. I will concentrate on information commonly disseminated and their place in Israeli Martial Arts history, covering the history of Krav Maga, including the events leading to the founding of civilian Krav Maga by Imi Lichtenfeld.

I have chosen to focus on a pivotal moment in Israeli history: the transition of the Jewish community into statehood and the formation of its military, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

The proper order and chronology of events is as follows:

  1. Founding of the state of Israel

  2. Formation of the military on the foundation of the Hagana forces

  3. Formation of a school for physical training

  4. Formation of a Krav Maga branch within that school

  5. Appointment of Imi Lichtenfeld as chief of the Krav Maga branch

A General Timeline

1920

  • The Haganah (“Defense”) is formed as a civilian militia whose charter is to protect the Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine. From this moment, and even before, there is a constant exploration of hand to hand combat and training methodologies.

1941

  • January―The first Haganah Kapap instructor’s course takes place. Under the name Kapap (a short version or acronym of krav panim el panim meaning “face to face fighting”), hand to hand combat disciplines such as boxing, knife fighting, stick fighting and jujutsu are taught separately with guiding principles and uniform methodologies. The chief instructors of the instructor’s course are: Maishel Horowitz (מישל הורוביוץ), Menashe Harel, Gershon Kofler, and Yitzhak Shtibel.
  • May―The Palmach is formed jointly with the British military mandate forces. Shortly after its formation, the Palmach goes underground and becomes the Haganah’s standing military force besides its militia forces. Palmach was part of the now organized Haganah and not an independent organization―it was the Haganah’s elite fighting force.
  • May―Maishel Horowitz is brought to the Palmach to teach his stick fighting method as part of the first Kapap instructor’s course for the Palmach. Moshe Pinkel Zohar (משה פינקל זוהר) is appointed Chief Instructor of physical training in the Palmach and remains in this position until 1948 when the Palmach is incorporated into the IDF, where Moshe Pinkel Zohar continues to fill this position.

1942-1948

  • Between 1942-1948, Imi Lichtenfeld (אימי ליכטנפלד) functions as a Kapap instructor in the Palmach, teaching knife, jujutsu, and boxing according to the Palmach curriculum.

1947

  • November 29―the UN General Assembly passes Resolution 181 which is a Partition Plan for Palestine, a two state solution. As a result of this and the rejection of the plan by the Arab leadership, civil war broke out between both communities in Palestine.

1948

  • May―The state of Israel is formed. The Arab states respond with a military invasion of the state of Israel, turning the conflict into a full blown war.
  • Within two weeks of the declaration of Israel’s independence, the IDF (a conscript army) is formed, integrating the three Jewish underground paramilitary organizations Haganah/Palmach, Etzel (Irgun), and Lehi into one military body.
  • May and June―The service for physical training (Sherut Leimun Gufany) in the IDF is formed, and the head of the service is Moshe Pinkel Zohar. Within the service, a school for physical training is formed and its chief officer is Mairon Avramson (מירון אברהמסון).
  • Imi is commissioned as one of the eleven instructors on staff at the school due to the integration of the Palmach into the IDF and creation of the physical training school.

1949

  • June―The service for physical training is decommissioned and replaced by the branch of physical training. The school and its staff all continue in their same capacities only as part of the branch.
  • September―The first documented use of the term Krav Maga is used interchangeably with Kapap. The first instance shows up in the documents of an officer named Amos Golani (עמוס גולני), whose job was to supervise the physical training of the combat field units.

1954

  • The terms Kapap and Krav Maga are still used interchangeably in official documents.

Sometime between 1956 and 1958

  • Imi becomes the Chief Instructor of physical training and perhaps the head of a new branch formed, the Krav Maga branch. It is yet undetermined when this branch was formed, it is however known to have existed as early as 1958. Documentation confirming earlier dates has yet to be found. Review of documents from the period 1956-1958 is still pending. No witness accounts have been found to confirm any earlier dates.

1963

  • Imi retires from the IDF and opens his civilian Krav Maga club in Netanya.

A Short Narrative Describing the Integrated Timelines

In 1948, the IDF was formed, incorporating the forces of the Palmach. As a result, Imi Lichtenfeld, a talented Kapap instructor, was commissioned alongside his fellow instructors and officers to keep teaching and training soldiers in the hand to hand fighting discipline known at the time as Kapap. Imi was serving in active duty as a hand to hand and physical training instructor in the IDF for 15 years. During those 15 years, he was part of the process of developing the hand to hand combat disciplines in the IDF. Imi rose in rank and responsibility until in the last five years when he headed the newly formed Krav Maga branch in the IDF. This period seems to be the time frame during which Krav Maga began transitioning into an “integrated system” comprising Kapap’s structure and collection of hand to hand combat skills, and using Kapap’s guiding principles.

There was no commissioning of any persons to develop a system, but a known group of people are responsible for a recognizable process of evolving the existing system, adjusting it to the times and organizations using it.

There was no unnamed ineffective system to replace, but rather the known system of Kapap. Kapap’s disciplines, principles and methodologies were used as the foundation for Krav Maga.

There was no head position and no branch for Imi to be the head of until a much later period of time.

As it turns out, Kapap was the precursor of Krav Maga. Krav Maga, at its outset, was simply a new version of Kapap. Even though Krav Maga has sprouted many different civilian versions, one can still recognize the roots of Krav Maga as reflected in historical Kapap. Modern Kapap, on the other hand, can be recognized as being true to the approach and philosophy of Kapap but not based on its physical attributes.

When we are willing to reexamine what we believe to be the story of Krav Maga and Israeli Martial Arts, then we will be able to appreciate the contributions of all those figures, such as Imi Lichtenfeld, who helped develop Israeli Martial Arts.

We have looked at the unfolding of historical events around the development of Israeli Martial Arts as accurately as is possible at this time. We recognize the various stages of its development and therefore we can attribute changes and adjustments to all those who played a role in the process of developing and evolving Israeli Martial Arts. In light of historical facts, we see Imi for who he was, a pivotal figure in the transition from Kapap to Krav Maga, and he is the originator and founder of civilian Krav Maga.

References and Bibliography

Nadav Kaner, Paratroopers of Hope (1996)
Jacob Merkovitzky, Special Ground Units of the Palmach (1989)
Naim Rachel, Palmach Guide Book (1984)


3 Responses to “Israeli Martial Arts: A Brief Timeline”

  1. don rendall

    good historical review of the art. would like to know more about how imi started training and later pulled everything together into an excellent self defense system

    Reply
  2. PETE FLORES

    MAY I PRACTICE WITH YOU 9 THRU 13 SEPT 14 WHEN I GO TO GALVESTON?

    Reply
    • KMI Team

      Hi Pete, Thanks for your comment. I’m sorry but we do not currently have a location in Galveston. Best of luck to you in your quest for exceptional Krav Maga training! – KMI Team

      Reply

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