Israelis You Should Know: Imi Lichtenfeld
The Fellowship | June 23, 2017
Lived: May 26, 1910 – January 9, 1998
Known for: An Israeli martial artist, Imi Lichtenfeld developed the Krav Maga self-defense system adopted by the IDF and Israel’s security forces.
Why you should know him: Born Emrich Lichtenfeld to a Jewish family in Budapest, Hungary, Imi grew up in Slovakia. His interest in self-defense began early, as his father was a police inspector and former circus performer. Young Imi traned at the Hercules Gymnasium that his father owned, learning self-defense, while finding success as a boxer, wrestler, and gymnast. A member of the Slovakian National Wrestling Team, he won the youth championship in 1928, and the adult championship the next year. He also won the national boxing championship and an international championship in gymnastics.
When anti-Semitic riots broke out in Bratislava in the late-1930s, Imi helped defend his Jewish neighborhood from the rampaging racist gangs. He realized that his training in wrestling and boxing had little to do with the real-life combat he found himself in, and began to develop techniques for self-defense in actual situations.
During a visit to British-mandate Palestine in 1935 with a team of Jewish wrestlers, Imi could not compete, as he had broken a rib in training. This led to one of his fundamental rules: “do not get hurt” while training. Returning home to find the anti-Semitic violence even worse, Imi gained more experience protecting his community. This experience led to more fundamental truths he would use later: the use of natural movements and reactions when defending, combined with an immediate and decisive counterattack. This led to his principle of “simultaneous defense and attack” and “never occupying two hands in the same defensive movement.”
When the Nazis occupied his homeland in 1940, Imi made aliyah (immigrated) to the Holy Land aboard a boat which was shipwrecked on the Aegean Sea. He at last reached the Holy Land in 1942, where his fighting ability was recognized by the Haganah (the precursor to the IDF).
In 1944, he began training Haganah fighters in his many areas of expertise: physical fitness, swimming, wrestling, knife use, and defense against knife attacks.
In 1948, Israel won its independence and the IDF was formed. Imi was named Chief Instructor for Physical Fitness and Krav Maga at the IDF’s School of Combat Fitness. He served in the IDF for two decades, developing and perfecting his Krav Maga system. After retiring from the IDF, he also adapted his method for civilian use.
After saving countless lives with his self-defense system and training, Imi Lichtenfeld passed away in 1998 at the age of 87.