Krav Maga: History, Representation, and Globalization of a Self-Defense System from Israel

“Krav Maga as the Essence of ‘Israeliness’” – a chapter from “Krav Maga: History, Representation, and Globalization of a Self-Defense System from Israel” article by Jürgen Schaflechner

In 2017, the New York Times published an article on krav maga featuring (among others) Paul Szyarto, a US businessman, fitness coach, and the producer of a documentary film on the Israeli self-defense system. In the article, Szyarto is quoted saying that for him, the hand combat system ‘encapsulates the essence of Israeliness: resourcefulness, versatility, and a mindset of doing whatever it takes to win’ [New York Times 30 Dec. 2017].The New York Times article does not provide any further explanation of Szyarto’s interpretation of the somewhat ambiguous term ‘Israeliness’. Another interview featuring the self-proclaimed fitness CEO sheds light on his understanding of the link between krav maga and the Israeli people:

The Israeli people are incredibly resilient […] Their history, for thousands of years, has been one of survival, whether in places like Bratislava or the Jerusalem Hills. They hate fighting, yet they often face no choice. And if they must fight, they do so with a sense of ethics and fearlessness that prevents bad decisions and outcomes. We can apply the same Krav Maga principles to everyday situations in our own lives as police officers, soldiers, athletes, and executives […] Krav Maga is a self-defense system that perfectly encapsulates the three-fold mindset that is the Israeli way of life: Lethal violence only as a last resort, meticulous preparedness, and fearless, purposeful, constant action under great pressure. [Cult Hub 10 Dec. 2017]

To Szyarto, Israelis are a distinct group whose way of life is marked by an involuntary martial identity. As a system of defensive attacks that skillfully neutralize an aggressor. Krav maga thus emerges as the bodily habitus of a thousand-year-old people who have no other choice than to fight. In other words, Israelis are ethical and fearless in the face of outside aggression.

Such and similar statements do not exist in a void but are characteristic for a whole discourse that explains krav maga as inherently Israeli. Guy Mor, a professor at Shanghai University of Sport, for example, argues that it should be declared an ‘intangible cultural heritage of Israel’ as it ‘underpins a sense of Israeli national identity’ [Mor 2019a: 295-296]. Mor also connects self-defense practices to Israeli culture and calls for more research on how krav maga is ‘linked to the cultural heritage of the Jewish people’ [Mor 2019a: 295]. However, a straightforward association between an Israeli people and krav maga’s WHORV as their bodily expression outside nationalist projections is difficult to maintain.

Historians of nationalism have shown how relatively recently invented traditions often appear in ancient identities’ guise [Gellner 1972, Anderson 2006, Hobsbawm and Ranger 2012]. With the rise of nationalism around the nineteenth-century, historians were eager to fill large gaps between ancient times and the modern era. Their work helped produce a nation’s continuous history, shuffle former societal taxonomies, and build new associations based on shared identities such as language or religion. Since Zionism and notions of a homogenous community have their roots in European nationalism, the historical telos of a Jewish people as a distinct thousand-year-old ethnic group is also contested [Sand and Lotan 2010, Sternhell 2009]. Similarly, ‘Israeliness’ – like any other ‘imagined community’ [Anderson 2006] – is a somewhat elusive concept. The sociologist Baruch Kimmerling writes in his book The Invention and the Decline of Israeliness [Kimmerling 2005] that while the Yishuv society (pre-Israel Jewish communities in Palestine) might once have been relatively homogenous, the incoming of settlers, as well as the treatment of the Arab population, made questions about ‘who is an Israeli’ and what constitutes ‘Israeliness’ in a moot point. Separated into several different cultures, languages, and religious practices, ‘Israeliness’ fails as an encompassing description of the people living within the (contested) borders of Israel and, thus, as a way to describe krav maga.

To understand Szyarto’s and Mor’s explanations of krav maga as ‘the essence of Israeliness’ or as a ‘cultural heritage of Israel’, we need to look at discourses of ‘muscular Judaism’, a term emerging towards the end of the 19th century. Presner traces this image of the firm (masculine) muscular Jewish body back to the second Zionist Congress in 1898 when Max Nordau, Theodor Herzl’s physician, called for a new orientation in physical and moral strength, which he considered necessary for a Zionist return to Palestine [Presner 2007: 1]. The aim of ‘muscular Judaism’ was to rebrand the Jewish community as a martial people, with the ability to protect their personal and national interests in the advent of Zionism. This political and aesthetic project was linked to canonized Jewish heroes, such as Samson or Judas Maccabeus (Lichtenfeld’s second krav maga school in Netanya was called ‘Samson Gym’). However, the new Jewish manliness was also a contentious category, as it built on stereotypes of east European Jewry. While eastern communities were considered ‘authentic’ Jewish in keeping with Judaic traditions, they were simultaneously also imagined as too physically weak for a nationalistic Zionist endeavor. For Presner, the birth of the muscular Jew, therefore, lies at an uncomfortable crossroads between social Darwinist and nationalist discourses [Presner 2007: 4]. This masculinity crisis is not unique to the Jewish body but has its parallel in the ideology of muscular Christianity, similarly emerging towards the end of the 19th century. Muscular Christianity also turned towards physical fitness and increasingly portrayed Jesus as an athlete instead of an ascetic [Greve 2018]. Discourses on muscular Christianity likely influenced muscular Judaism [Mor 2019b].

In one of his earlier works, Slavoj Zizek tackles how what he calls nodal points can organize a relatively heterogeneous field (such as in our case, ‘Israeliness’). In his 1989 piece ‘Che Vuoi?’ he describes a process in which the brand Marlboro serves as a nodal point to connote and provide a specific ideological vision of America. ‘America’ as a term standing in for various meanings and representations (similar to ‘Israeliness’), thus was organized in the Marlboro campaign as, for example, the land of the free, adventurous cowboys, and unlimited possibilities. In Zizek’s example Marlboro unifies the heterogeneous associations with ‘America’ into a more homogenous field of references [Zizek 1989:105-108]. Similarly, Szyarto and Mor organize an ambivalent ‘Israeliness’ into a more coherent set through the nodal point of krav maga. The self-defense system thus provides a link between Israeli national identity and Israel’s military culture. Presner elaborates on this when he writes that particularly the 1967 war proved that ‘Jewishness’ was not associated with physically weak intellectuals anymore, but with decisive and muscular ‘Tzabar’ Jews (men and women born in the land of Israel and the British Mandate of Palestine), who were heroically fighting for their country. ‘[B]eing-Jewish-in-theworld’ became ‘characterized by toughness, aggressiveness, and battlereadiness’, and krav maga was the way to make this known globally [Presner 2007: xvii]. When Szyarto and Mor speak of krav maga, they speak of more than merely a variety of kicks and punches. For them, it condenses ‘Israeliness’ with its readiness to fight, its offensedefense, and its culture of civilian-militarism [Kimmerling 2005]. Understanding Israeli identity through krav maga, we will see in the following, is produced on the backdrop of Jewish-Palestinian conflicts and the exclusion of Arabs living in Israel.

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