My name is Laura Barkel. I am 21 years old and currently a student at Toronto Metropolitan University. In addition to my academic pursuits, I am actively involved in promoting Israel education and advocacy. I serve as the Vice President of Israel Education at Hillel TMU, the centre for Jewish life on campus, and am an Emerson Fellow with StandWithUs Canada. These roles have allowed me to engage with the broader campus community on topics related to Israel and the Middle East, with the goal of promoting constructive dialogue, understanding, and education.
My experience as a Jewish student at TMU has been one of resilience, adaptation, and a growing awareness of the challenges faced by my peers and I in the face of antisemitism. Having grown up in Thornhill, a predominantly Jewish community, my move downtown, out of the ‘Jewish bubble’, has significantly changed my surroundings. While my academic pursuits have been focused on psychology, my journey through TMU has also recently involved navigating the complex landscape of diversity, tolerance, and prejudice on campus.
Since October 7th, the atmosphere on campus has been extremely tense. The rise of antisemitic incidents has created a deeply uncomfortable and distressing environment. It is disheartening to note that, as a Jewish student, I have been subjected to verbal and physical assaults, received death threats online, and encountered nasty messages due to my ethnic and cultural background. Walking to class, attending lectures, or simply engaging in everyday conversations has become a daunting task, as they can quickly lead to unwarranted hate and discrimination. These experiences have left a lasting impact on me and other Jewish students on campus as we navigate our way through this challenging period.
The initial response from TMU, following the incidents targeting Jewish students, left many of us feeling underrepresented and disappointed. We yearned for a stronger, more unequivocal stance against antisemitism. It’s worth noting that the atmosphere during the various protests that occurred was anything but conducive to constructive dialogue. Fortunately, the protests have calmed down, and there has been a glimmer of hope as the Toronto Metropolitan Student Union has continued to co-sponsor Holocaust Education Week on campus, an event organized by Hillel TMU, as they have since 2017. Going into this week, I had my own hesitations about how the different programs would run, but I have been pleasantly surprised by how many opportunities my peers and I have had to connect with students that we otherwise never would have. This has opened a channel for dialogue about such an important part in history, and is especially important to me as a descendant of multiple Holocaust survivors myself.
However, there is still hesitation within the Jewish community, as the same student union is co-sponsoring a “Panel for Palestine” event. This event has raised significant concerns, as some of the speakers have expressed views that are deeply troubling to the Jewish community. They have used words like “genocide” and “intifada” in the context of the Jewish population. Some of these speakers have been involved in protests that have made it physically unsafe for Israeli and American consulate workers in Toronto.
I attempted to write about these issues for the school newspaper, but my request was immediately turned down. While I cannot speak for all 1,000 Jewish students on campus, many resonate with my frustration and desire to have our voices heard.
In response to these challenges, I have taken it upon myself to initiate an effort to bring Jewish and Palestinian students together. The goal is to foster open dialogue, break down stereotypes, and reduce the divisive and hateful ideologies that have taken hold. The hostile environment created on campus has left no room for questions, conversations, connections, or healthy dialogue. My hope is to be a part of the change that can rectify this situation. Our university should be a place of learning, tolerance, and unity for all its students, regardless of their backgrounds.
Like all educational institutions, Toronto Metropolitan University has the potential to serve as a powerful catalyst for understanding and tolerance. As a university community, we can work towards making this vision a reality. When our world is grappling with numerous challenges, it is essential to prioritize education and foster connections that transcend our differences. Our collective strength can ultimately overcome the forces that threaten to divide us.
In these challenging times, organizations like Hillel play a vital role in providing a safe space for Jewish students on various campuses across Canada. Hillel is a place where students can come together, share their experiences, and find strength in their community. It offers support, a sense of belonging, and opportunities for Jewish students to engage with their heritage. It is in these spaces that we can find strength, resilience, and a sense of belonging, and I am proud to be a part of such a community. Additionally, my involvement with StandWithUs Canada has been instrumental in expanding my knowledge about complex issues related to Israel and the Middle East. StandWithUs has equipped me with the skills to address these issues respectfully and informally, regardless of the challenges presented. I am grateful for the valuable education and experiences that both Hillel and StandWithUs have provided, which have empowered me to engage in meaningful dialogue and advocacy for a better, more inclusive campus environment.
As the Vice President of Israel Education at Hillel TMU and an Emerson Fellow with StandWithUs Canada, I aspire to be a bridge builder, fostering conversations that promote understanding and mutual respect. In times of adversity, we must remember that our shared humanity is more powerful than any divisive forces seeking to tear us apart.