In the latter part of the 1930s, Bratislava was home to a large, affluent Jewish community. Overcoming many challenges as an ethnic minority, the Jewish community in Slovakia thrived. In 1938, a new wave of antisemitism gripped Bratislava. Jewish businesses were boycotted, burned, and looted, synagogues and yeshivas were burned, students were expelled from universities, and Jews were barred from certain forms of employment. Most heinously, Jewish men, women, and children were often murdered.
When fascists came to Bratislava, Master Imi understood that his community would need something radically different. Under these circumstances, Master Imi Lichtenfeld created and taught the Jewish community Krav Maga, which has become one of the most efficient self-defense systems worldwide. Violence throughout subsequent centuries has forced Krav Maga instructors to adapt the techniques to address what Jewish communities face. An analysis of some of the more extreme incidents over the past year alone is startling:
- April 2022: Jewish students were threatened by three teens armed with a crowbar and a knife. Matthew Greenman was brutally beaten by Sadaah Masoud at a rally hosted by Within Our Lifetime, a CUNY group notorious for encouraging violence against Jews. At one rally, an organizer handed maps to participants with the addresses of Jewish NGOs – referring to them and their staff as “legitimate targets.”
- February 2022: Quintez Brown attempted to kill Mayoral Candidate Craig Greenberg.
- January 2022: Muhammad Siddiqui took the Rabbi and Congregants of Colleyville hostage during Shabbat services to demand the release of Aafia Siddiqui.
- December 26th, 2021 – Blake Zavadsky and his friend Ilan Kaganovich were assaulted by Suleiman Othman, who was released the next day.
- November 30th, 2021 – Jewish children were assaulted on the way home. A man claiming to be Palestinian threatened to bomb a Jewish bakery in Queens.
- October 2021 – A pregnant woman was attacked, and a Jewish man was hit with a projectile fired from a car. Sharee Jones attempted to burn down a synagogue.
- August 2021: A yeshiva student in Denver was murdered.
- July 2021 – Khaled Awad stabbed Rabbi Shlomo Noginski eight times in Boston after holding him at gunpoint.
- June 2021 – an explosive was found outside a Queens synagogue. Bullets were fired at a Brooklyn synagogue on Shabbat.
- May 2021: Palestinian protestors attempted to lynch a Jewish man. Palestinians beat Joey Borgen with flag poles in midtown Manhattan, then maced him. Palestinian protestors shot fireworks at Jewish civilians. In LA, Palestinians jumped from their car and demanded to know who was Jewish before they began beating people. A Jewish man’s kippah was burned, and his wife was assaulted at a rally in Cleveland. Ali Alaheri set fire to a Yeshiva and Synagogue.
- April 2021: Shokhobiddin Bakhritdinovon was arrested for a car-ramming attack against the Hasidic community. A knife-wielding assailant attacked a Jewish family.
I interviewed Expert Raz Chen, CEO of AVIIR and Senior instructor for Guardian Self Defense in New York. GSD is a nonprofit funded by donors that provide subsidized training for the Jewish community. Raz has also volunteered for Dragon Combat Club, a nonprofit dedicated to teaching the Asian American community to defend themselves. Raz spoke to me about how Krav Maga prepares civilians to handle life-threatening situations.
“We place particular emphasis on avoidance and de-escalation. Krav Maga is based on natural reflexes, so everyone is able to learn and apply the techniques. We teach the ABCs: Avoidance through awareness, boundaries with body and voice, and combat as an absolute last resort. The more you train, the less likely you will find yourself in a situation where you have to fight. Recognizing predators and red flags is an essential skill that is extremely undervalued. Acknowledging your gut instinct and extracting yourself from the situation ahead of time is ideal. Ideally, we want to defuse the situation with words and establish clear boundaries. We teach combat as a means of protection only.”
Tsahi Shemesh is the owner of Krav Maga Experts. He says that Krav Maga, here and in Israel, brings people together regardless of their background or faith.
“We have trained people from Iran, Egypt, Lebanon, even Gaza. Some of my students have told me that friends stopped speaking with them because they train with Israelis. A student from Gaza told me her family rejected her because she was training with Jews. But she had no problem with us. Eventually, she had to return to Gaza. I don’t know where, but I hope she is ok. We are here for anyone who wants to empower themselves.”
Like many Israeli business owners in America, Tsahi is no stranger to antisemitism. Candidates refused interviews with him because he was Israeli. Students have withdrawn membership because his business is “connected to Israel.” He wonders how many people won’t come to learn because he is Israeli. As I listened, I couldn’t help but wonder how one justifies targeting someone’s business because of their identity. Is this not the opposite of progressive ideology?
The attacks have been effective: reports show that one out of five Jews on campuses hide their identity. Who can blame them? In August 2021, a Jewish student at Yeshiva in Denver, Colorado, was murdered. Last month, Matthew Greenman was brutally beaten by Sadaah Masoud at a rally hosted by Within Our Lifetime, a CUNY group notorious for encouraging violence against Jews.
While their fear is understandable, we know that fear is the objective of those who call for violence against our community. I do not believe we serve our community by hiding. Everyone should be free to celebrate who they are in peace. Unfortunately, the normalization of violence against Jews has created a new reality we must address.
When the fascist paramilitary groups in Bratislava came in the hundreds and tried to break into the Jewish quarter, Master Imi and sixteen Jewish athletes fought – successfully- to keep them out. Amateur weightlifters and boxers protected their communities against a mob who had been brainwashed by the same rhetoric so prevalent in our society today. Imi understood that the violence would keep coming and training was a necessity. Our objective today should still be to avoid violence and promote peace and understanding, but history (including recent history) has shown us that it is better to be prepared for the worst and hope for the best.