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'Just in Case,' Israelis Flock to Get Gas Masks


Although no one has officially said that a war is imminent, or even on the horizon, the tension in Syria and the reports of missiles launched at northern Israel in recent days has caused a significant increase in requests for gas mask kits, reported the Israel Post Office, which distributes the kits. Until approximately two weeks ago, around 2,000 kits were distributed daily; on Sunday, 4,730 were distributed, a record number for one day.

A similar increase was seen in the number of Israelis who sought customized gas masks, to accommodate children and people with special requirements. Several weeks ago, 200 such requests were made a day; on Sunday, there were 400 such requests.

The Post Office said that so far, 4,800,000 mask kits have been distributed in total. The increase in requests could also be due to announcements recently broadcast by the Homefront Security Ministry, that gas mask distributions will soon end. Israelis can order kits directly to their homes by dialing 171, the Ministry said.

The apparent trigger for Sunday's bumper day of mask distribution was a report over the weekend that a rocket had been fired into Israel, by either Syria or Hizbullah. Lebanese media reported that the rocket had hit within Israel and that a loud explosion had been heard on both sides of the border. IDF officials said later on Sunday that a search of the area had not yielded any evidence of rocket-fire into Israel, and as such could not confirm if such an event had in fact taken place or not.

Could Germany Have a Jewish Chancellor?

By Reuters

A new novel about a neo-Nazi plot to assassinate Germany's first Jewish candidate for Chancellor has shed a timely light on the right-wing extremist violence that has plagued the country since 1990 and was swept under the carpet for years.

Political thriller "The Jewish Candidate" by British journalist David Crossland has been published just as Germany's September election campaign is heating up and at the start of a trial of a neo-Nazi cell blamed for a spate of racist murders that went undetected for more than a decade.

Built upon the intriguing notion of a Jewish politician named Rudolf Gutman running for Chancellor as the candidate for the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), the fast-paced thriller is told through the eyes of a reporter for a fictional London newspaper who stumbles upon a neo-Nazi plot to kill Gutman. Set in modern Germany, "The Jewish Candidate" focuses on the surge in far-right violence since reunification in 1990 and on the country's failure to contain it.

Some estimates say almost 200 people have been killed in acts of far-right violence since 1990 that have often been directed at dark-skinned foreigners. In late 2011 police accidentally stumbled upon a neo-Nazi cell, the National Socialist Underground (NSU), whose members killed eight Turks, a Greek and a German policewoman execution-style between 2000-2007 and carried out two bombings in immigrant quarters in Cologne.

"I started writing it back in 2007 before anyone had heard about the NSU," said Crossland, a freelance writer and former Reuters correspondent. I was reporting about neo-Nazi violence and was surprised at how lightly the authorities and the general public were taking it despite warnings that parts of the east were 'no-go' areas for anyone who doesn't look German."

The parallels between the real-life NSU and the fictional neo-Nazi assassins in "The Jewish Candidate" are striking but coincidental. The novel, set in the run-up to an election, includes descriptions of clandestine torchlit neo-Nazi meetings and of their links with the security services.

The novel also raises the interesting question of whether Germany might one day have a Jewish chancellor. It had a Jewish population of 670,000 before the Nazi regime and Holocaust. There was a vestigial community of 29,000 in 1990. Germany prides itself on its growing Jewish population of over 200,000.

Crossland, 46, who has lived in Germany since 1992, said Germany may be ready to elect a Jewish leader. "But it's an unlikely prospect for now due to a lack of Jewish politicians," he said. "It's clear, though, that neo-Nazis are better armed and better organized than the authorities believed until the NSU came to light."

Supercomputer Revolutionizes Cairo Geniza Research

By The Times of Israel

A supercomputer on the campus of Tel Aviv University is set to revolutionize research on one of the world's most important repositories of ancient documents – the Cairo Geniza, which came to light 117 years ago behind the wall of an ancient synagogue.

The computer, fed more than 300,000 images of fragments from the geniza collection, began work on May 16. Over five weeks, it will make 12 billion visual comparisons between pieces, suggesting possible matches. The computer is set to complete its work on June 25, marking perhaps the most dramatic leap forward in geniza scholarship in a century.

The Cairo Geniza collection includes around 320,000 fragments of parchment and paper documents from a millennium of Jewish life in the Muslim metropolis, beginning in the 9th century CE They include religious texts, contracts, recipes, magic amulets, letters among businessmen involved in trade with India, and even papers written by the famed 12th-century philosopher Maimonides.

The documents all bore the name of God, and so could not be thrown out according to Jewish law. Instead, for centuries Cairo's Jews simply stuffed them through a hole in the wall of the women's section of the Ben Ezra synagogue in the Fustat district and into a small room – known as a geniza, from the Hebrew word "to store" — where they were kept, preserved by Egypt's dry climate, until coming to the attention of European scholars in 1896.

Understanding the documents from the geniza requires matching together scattered pieces of the same document. But the fragments are now scattered among 67 libraries across the world, making that difficult. Only about 4,000 such matches have been made in more than a century of research.

The new computation effort was made possible by the efforts of the Friedberg Genizah Project, based in Jerusalem, which since 2006 has been scanning fragments from nearly all existing collections and uploading them to a website,

"This is the first time the whole geniza has been available to researchers anytime, anywhere," said Yaacov Choueka, the computer scientist in charge of the project. Choueka was born in Cairo and left when he was 20, amid the exodus of the city's Jews because of persecution in the mid-20th century. For the first time since 1896, he said, the entire collection was together again. "We want to restore the geniza to the way it was at the beginning, and release researchers from the need to look for matches all over the world," he said.

Choueka's son, Roni, is one of the computer specialists behind the work of the supercomputer. The recognition software, he said, looks at characteristics like the number of lines, the density of text, and the average width of a line, helping the computer select probable matches from hundreds of thousands of possibilities.

The efficacy of the software was demonstrated earlier this year when one researcher, Stefan Reif of Cambridge, was looking for a match for a vellum fragment of an 11th-century Passover Haggada that had been brought to the British university in 1897.

The Israeli geniza project was putting the finishing touches on its computer program. Researchers ran the image through the new software and immediately found a match: A sister fragment from the same Haggada was in the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

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