Fists of Jewry

Amy Touisithiphonexay brings krav maga, the Israeli art of self-defense, to South Florida

"I'm really a pinky girl," she offers while wearing a tight-fitting T-shirt printed with the warning "Don't judge a girl by her T-shirt." "I'm a girlie-girl, and I think I'm really feminine. But I'll stand up for myself. I'm not Wonder Woman, but I'm tough when I have to be tough."

September 11, 2001, is already etched into American history books only a month after the attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. Yet from the sickening reports of that fateful day have emerged tales of some phenomenal acts of heroism. Case in point: United Airlines Flight 93, a nonstop trip aboard a 767 that departed Newark for San Francisco at 8:01 a.m. only to crash into a rural western Pennsylvania field.

Husband and wife Sifus (teachers) Nee and Amy Touisithiphonexay man the fort at Nee's Kung Fu in Pembroke Pines
Joshua Prezant
Husband and wife Sifus (teachers) Nee and Amy Touisithiphonexay man the fort at Nee's Kung Fu in Pembroke Pines

The hijackers' planned destination for that flight is unknown. Some analysts believe it was headed for the Capitol or perhaps the White House. But because of some extremely courageous Americans, the casualties were limited to those 45 brave souls aboard the plane, perhaps sparing the lives of hundreds of unsuspecting people in D.C.

The story of the passengers who fought their hijackers is already legendary. The most widely reported act of heroism surrounds the group of athletic men who phoned their families and said they planned to fight the men who had taken over the plane. Since those first reports, other victims' families have come forward with similar reports. At least one flight attendant told her husband she was boiling water to use as a weapon.

That is the sort of thinking that krav maga instructors try to instill in their pupils: Anything is a weapon; always be ready.

The U.S. government seems to realize the practical applications of this kind of training. Krav Maga International President Whitman says that nothing is official yet because the government is weighing all its options but that representatives of the Federal Air Marshal program have already contacted him about possibly providing training for their forces.

"krav maga has a lot of experience working with security teams moving through crowds, working in confined spaces, especially if they can't get to their firearm immediately," Whitman says. "For civilians it teaches how to go from a passive, normal, everyday state to aggressive quickly."

One solution for air safety that came up in recent weeks was the arming of pilots. Another alternative, though, would be to train them in hand-to-hand combat. Many pilots of Israeli airline El Al study krav maga for situations like those that doomed United Airlines flights 93 and 175 and American Airlines flights 11 and 77.

Amy Touisithiphonexay hesitates to talk about the terrorist attacks; like most people she's still reeling from the shock, the sheer enormity of the attacks, the ongoing war in Afghanistan, and the incidents of bioterrorism. She does see a practical use for krav maga on airplanes. "I think it would be so beneficial to pilots and flight attendants," she says. "But that's not all -- every girl that goes away to college even."

Though Amy tries to steer the discussion away from current events and toward the many health and self-defense benefits of her art, she can't ignore history. Like many martial arts, krav maga was born of warfare. Okinawans developed their brand of karate in their fight against Japanese oppression. Chinese secret societies trained their members in various styles of kung fu in their battles with both the invading Manchus and, later, European imperialist powers. Afro-Brazilian slaves disguised the devastating fighting system of capoeira as simple folk dancing to fool their masters. Yet those conflicts are far in the past. krav maga is still employed, every day, against the people it was developed to fight: Arabs.

As relations between Israelis and Palestinians continue to deteriorate in a hail of bullets, guided missiles, and suicide bombs, how does Amy feel about teaching an art the very existence of which is so politically charged?

"There's always been political strife there," she allows. "But I didn't start teaching this because of what it represented politically. I'll continue teaching it because it's good stuff and not because of any one political statement."

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