Krav Maga—literally, “contact combat”—is the martial art taught to the Israel Defense Forces and Israeli security services. While it does not enjoy the widespread American popularity of Karate or Tae Kwon Do, Krav Maga is considered by many martial arts experts to be among the most realistic, practical, and effective arts in the world. It emphasizes speed, aggression, efficiency, and real-world fighting, and it can be taught quickly and effectively to soldiers.
Alongside of its brutal, practical philosophy, however, is buried a deep philosophical and theoretical nuance. The principles of Krav Maga are simple, but their implications are worthy of attention. Like most all martial arts, this is still an art, and it still contains a measure of spirituality, however limited it may seem.
In this article, we will take a look at the principles of Israeli martial arts and of Krav Maga in particular. We will see the way that even a martial art focused on practical, real-life defense is rooted in deep philosophical commitments to peace, balance, and personal growth.
Krav Maga is concerned with reality—with the reality of situations in which your need to defend yourself. This distances the art from other arts, such as Aikido, in which focus is placed on the artistic and spiritual content of particular movements, some of which may never be practically applicable in real-world fights.
Focusing on reality means that rather than creating a space in which martial artists train—rather than creating a reality—martial artists are expected to train in a space that reflects reality. To reflect rather than to create is one of the goals of Krav Maga training. This doesn’t mean that the art is not an art, it only means that it is more like a photograph and less like an impressionist painting—it mirrors reality rather than interpreting and creating it.
The goal of reality-based martial arts, such as Israeli martial arts, is to prepare its practitioners to encounter the real world, including the violence and aggression and danger that real world sometimes includes. But it does more than simply prepare one for aggression. Martial arts such as this also aim to encourage the kind of personal growth that will allow someone to deal with reality, whatever it presents to them. This is more than a mere physical growth—it is a spiritual and philosophical journey. Focusing on reality means focusing on how to respond to reality, and in a sense, how to be worthy of reality, which means being able to grow and change to become the kind of person you need to be to do so.
Simultaneity of offense and defense
Krav Maga emphasizes the fact that attacking and defending need not be separate movements. The idea here is that the most effective defense is a good attack, sometimes even preemptive, while the most useful attacks are often meant to be defensive. This is more than a practical lesson —the simultaneity of offense and defense mirrors a feature of the world that is highlighted by Krav Maga. Unlike some arts, in which passivity and activity are seen as two competing forces, Krav Maga sees the two poles as always already intertwined. To attack is always to defend and to defend is always to attack. Likewise, action is always a kind of passivity and passiveness or responsiveness is always a kind of activity. The world does not divide neatly into doing and responding; rather, it is an admixture of the two.
In Krav Maga, to reflect reality means to reflect this fact—the simultaneity of attack and defense, of passivity and activity. Learning to accommodate and reflect this fact, this balance in the world, is one of the ways that a martial artist can be prepared for the world outside of their training space.
Krav Maga emphasizes aggression. The aggression that it emphasizes, however, is physical aggression rather than emotional aggression. You may want to strike with emotional content, but as Bruce Lee’s character taught his pupil at the beginning of “Enter The Dragon,” that doesn’t mean anger. The effective Krav Maga fighter is able to move quickly and violently, attacking the most vulnerable parts of the human body, and seeking to completely incapacitate the person who threatens them, but they are to do so without anger or malice and without emotional aggression.
The best way to be aggressive effectively is to maintain emotionally calm. This is a paradoxical principle, but it emphasizes the inner balance that is needed to be an effective fighter. It also demonstrates the kind of spiritual and psychological work one needs to do on themselves as they train—to become the kind of person you can remain calm and calculate the best route for physical aggression is difficult, but it is the goal (or one of the goals) of training. It is easy to see why this requires intense reflection and spiritual growth.
Awareness of situations and psychology
Israeli martial arts focus in part on physical training, and in part on psychological and emotional training. It is necessary to cultivate a particular kind of calm, focused awareness of situations so that you will be ready to respond to any situation. The goal here is to be aware of situations and to learn to identify recognizable patterns in them—this allows one to know what will likely happen next and be able to in the first instance avoid confrontation (which is a prime goal of Krav Maga) and then, if it is needed, respond and act aggressively to end a fight quickly.
Part of the training needed to cultivate this kind of awareness is psychological. It means having knowledge of and an eye for the complex emotional and psychological states that go into street fights and other dangerous situations. The hope is that by understanding this psychology, it will be possible to avoid confrontation altogether, but even if that fails, the understanding will make it easier to know when and how to attack and defend, even if that requires a preemptive attack.