Krav Maga pilgrims take down Brazil’s anti-Israel bias
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Krav Maga pilgrims take down Brazil’s anti-Israel bias

Self-defense master Kobi Lichtenstein tackles Israel-bashing in South America by bringing students to see the country for themselves

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Kobi Lichtenstein (center left) leads a Krav Maga training session atop Masada, January 2015. (Courtesy)
Kobi Lichtenstein (center left) leads a Krav Maga training session atop Masada, January 2015. (Courtesy)

Sitting in a Tel Aviv hotel lobby last week, Marcia Almaida recounted how she managed to escape a knife attack. She wasn’t talking about one of the recent stabbings of Israeli citizens by Palestinian terrorists in Israel and the West Bank, but rather about Rio de Janeiro, where she lives.

“There’s lot of crime in Brazil. It’s safer here in Israel,” said Almaida, a Krav Maga athlete who was wrapping up a 10-day trip to Israel together with 45 other practitioners of the self-defense system initially developed for the Israeli military.

Almaida, 31, credited her Krav Maga physical and mental training with heightening her awareness of her surroundings and preparing her to quickly run away from the knife-wielding assailant she encountered in her hometown.

Krav Maga focuses on real-world situations and emphasizes threat neutralization through aggressive simultaneous defensive and offensive maneuvers. While it draws upon techniques from a variety of sports and martial arts, such as boxing, wrestling and judo, its origin is in the street fighting techniques that Krav Maga founder Imi Lichtenfeld used as he defended the Jewish quarter of Bratislava, Czechoslovakia from Fascist thugs in the 1930s. Following his immigration to Israel in the late 1940s, Lichtenfeld introduced Krav Maga to the IDF, and in 1964 he began training civilians.

Almaida and her colleagues, ages 14 to 82, traveled to Israel to get to know the people and history of the country behind Krav Maga. As a rule, Israel gets a bad rap in Brazilian media.

Krav Maga Master Kobi Lichtenstein. (photo credit: Renee Ghert-Zand/Times of Israel)
Krav Maga Master Kobi Lichtenstein. (photo credit: Renee Ghert-Zand/Times of Israel)

“These trips by Krav Maga students are one of the most important things for Krav Maga and for Israel,” said Krav Maga master Kobi Lichtenstein, who is responsible for having brought the self-defense system to South America.

“They learn about the history of Israel and of Krav Maga. They get to see Israel as it really is, the truth about what is happening here, so that they can go back home and be ambassadors for Israel against all the anti-Israel bias in the media,” he said.

Lichtenstein, a Krav Maga prodigy who began training with Lichtenfeld at age three and teaching others at age 15, brought Krav Maga to Brazil when he moved from Israel to Rio de Janeiro 25 years ago.

With Lichtenfeld’s support and guidance, Lichtenstein, now 50, set up a South American Krav Maga federation and began teaching the system all over the continent, including to army and police units. Today, there are more than 150 Krava Maga training centers with some 10,000 students in South America, most of them in Brazil, Peru and Argentina.

Over the past 20 years, but especially since 2011, Lichtentein has brought around 1,000 South American Krav Maga instructors and students of all levels. He exposes them to the country through a tightly packed travel itinerary that combines typical tourist sites with Krav Maga-focused activities such as visiting Imi Lichtenfeld’s grave in Netanya and training with Israeli Krav Maga experts at the Wingate Institute.

“Our training at Wingate was the first time that I learned how to face more than one opponent at a time,” said trip participant Carlos Silva, 31, from Florianopolis, an island in southeastern Brazil.

‘Israel is defending itself — just like Krav Maga is about defending yourself’

Silva said the trip gave him a new perspective on Israel.

“I changed my mind about Israel,” he said. “Israel is not attacking anyone, as our government was telling us during the Gaza war last summer. Israel is defending itself — just like Krav Maga is about defending yourself.”

“From what you hear in the Brazilian media, you would think that Israel wants to dominate others in the region, but that is not the case,” said Diogo Fonseca, 29, from Brasilia, the Brazilian capital.

“There’s really a lot of social tolerance and free expression of religion here. We saw it in Jerusalem at the holy sites,” he said. “Thank God Israel is taking care of the religious sites here, because if others were in power…”

Although the trip participants have gained a positive view of Israel from their first-hand encounter with the country, they acknowledge that knocking down opposition to the Jewish state among their friends and family back home may not be so easy.

Krav Maga group from Brazil at Western Wall in Jerusalem, January 2015. (Courtesy)
Krav Maga group from Brazil at Western Wall in Jerusalem, January 2015. (Courtesy)

Eduardo Amorim, 40, from Sao Paulo thinks that social media has delivered a real blow to Israel.

“So much disinformation is spread on Facebook. Last summer there were all these videos that got shared around that no one checked for accuracy,” he said. “Social media really works a lot against Israel.”

For Silva, seeing is believing. He is confident that just as he changed his mind about Israel by personally visiting it, so too can his family members.

“When you say ‘Israel’ to my family, the first thing that comes to mind is fear. They are very fearful of coming here. They are very Catholic, so I am going to encourage them to come visit the Holy Land,” he said.

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