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Krav Maga 101: ‘Neutralize’ attacker, run and call 911

Dana Ben Kaplan’s advice for newbies to the Israeli martial art form includes palm strikes, groin kicks and, yes, running away from danger.

Jewish women practice Krav Maga in Ramat Migron in Judea and Samaria on July 17, 2012. Photo by Uri Lenz/Flash90.
Jewish women practice Krav Maga in Ramat Migron in Judea and Samaria on July 17, 2012. Photo by Uri Lenz/Flash90.

Some 20 high school and college students faced Dana Ben Kaplan in rows on a recent Friday afternoon.

“This isn’t third grade,” he told them. “This is the real world. If you’re attacked, the authorities aren’t going to ask you who punched first.”

The no-nonsense Krav Maga instructor had the students—all attendees of the recent StandWithUs conference in Los Angeles—hold their hands extended out from their chests, as if signaling an approaching person to back away.

In that position, one’s hands are in position to strike if the person doesn’t heed the warning, Kaplan explained. “With your palm, you strike the person’s nose,” he said.

Krav Maga (Hebrew for “contact combat”), it turns out, is a pragmatic rather than a baroque approach. If an opponent is too far away for a strike to the nose, Kaplan advises a swift kick to the groin.

“Then, once he’s neutralized,” he said, “the best idea is to run and call 911.”

‘I’m not going to hit you’

The breakout session Kaplan led at the early March conference was the only one of dozens that required students to sign waiver forms.

JNS observed some anxiety in the room as the instructor asked for a volunteer.

“Don’t worry,” he told a 16-year-old who stood to face him. “I’m not going to hit you.”

Kaplan had the students partner up and take turns holding pads up, as their opponent practiced palm strikes and kicks to the groin. Kaplan, lead instructor at Krav Maga San Diego, walked around, modifying techniques and providing feedback.

The San Diego center has offered training in Krav Maga, an Israeli martial art that focuses on self-defense in life-threatening situations, for more than three decades at the Lawrence Family JCC in La Jolla, Calif.

The official hand-to-hand fighting system of the Israel Defense Forces, Krav Maga is widely seen as an invention of Imi Lichtenfeld (1910-98), an accomplished Hungarian-born Israeli boxer, wrestler and martial artist.

Lichtenfeld is thought to have developed the technique in Bratislava in the 1930s when tasked with defending the Jewish ghetto from antisemitic gangs. He is said to have realized quickly that sport fighting, in which he was trained, was largely useless in real-life situations, so he developed a system of practical street fighting that became the basis for Krav Maga.

Lichtenfeld later joined the Haganah, which the IDF would later absorb, and trained fellow Zionist combatants in the unique style of hand-to-hand combat.

Krav Maga
Israeli soldiers of the 401st “Iron Trails” Armored Brigade practice Krav Maga south of Bethlehem in Judea and Samaria on Nov. 23, 2011. Photo by Kobi Gideon/Flash90.

‘I heard the whoosh’

Decades later, in the 1980s, Darren Levine—a nice Jewish boy from the San Fernando Valley—brought Krav Maga from Israel to Los Angeles, helping to popularize it in the United States.

Kaplan told JNS he has been involved with Krav Maga since 1992. A boxer and firefighter, he learned about a growing Krav Maga scene in San Diego from a newspaper article shown to him by a fellow firefighter. The article had the instructor’s contact information, so Kaplan got in touch.

He’s been passionate about the Krav Maga method of practical and easy-to-learn self-defense ever since, he told JNS.

Most of Krav Maga San Diego’s students aren’t Jewish, he noted, but the JCC is “a logical home for Krav Maga, linking us to the Jewish community in San Diego.”

Kaplan told JNS that he arrived in Israel on Oct. 6 for a training deployment as part of the nonprofit Emergency Volunteers Project with which he works as a firefighter. The project is part of the Israel Fire Authority, which invites firemen from all across the country to visit Israel to learn from colleagues in the Jewish state.

His training was slated to begin on Oct. 8—the day after Hamas terrorists attacked Israel.

“I was barely awake early the next morning when I heard the whoosh of the first rocket, which hit a building close enough to shake my room,” Kaplan told JNS.

During his two-week deployment with Israeli firefighters, the team responded to many kinds of situations, from typical fire department calls to rocket interceptions with shrapnel ground strikes, he told JNS.

“On one call, we pulled our fire engine over to the side of the highway for a siren and were lying face down on the ground with our Kevlar helmets and flak vests on, covering the back of our necks with our hands, as a rocket was intercepted over us,” he said.

‘They can defend themselves’

Back at the hotel in Los Angeles at the StandWithUs conference, the only things flying overhead were commercial airplanes taking off at the nearby LAX airport.

But Kaplan was in his element as he wrapped up the hour-long class and took questions from Krav Maga’s newest disciples.

His main message that afternoon was that Krav Maga students walk a little taller after leaving the session, and feel more confident and better prepared to handle what comes their way outside the class.

That includes being prepared for anything amid surging antisemitism.

“It is empowering for them to realize that they can defend themselves if physically threatened or attacked, and that can give them extra self-confidence in how they carry themselves,” Kaplan told JNS. “That alone makes them safer because they are less likely to be targeted.”

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