Stanford therapists allege ‘severe and persistent’ anti-Jewish harassment from co-workers by the Forward

Stanford therapists allege ‘severe and persistent’ anti-Jewish harassment from co-workers

Two Jewish mental health professionals at Stanford’s on-campus counseling clinic have filed workplace discrimination complaints after what they call “severe and persistent” anti-Jewish harassment from colleagues.

Dr. Ronald Albucher, a psychiatrist and associate professor in the medical school, and Sheila Levin, a therapist specializing in eating disorders, describe being pressed into joining a “whiteness” affinity group by staffers with the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion program, being told they were “privileged,” and seeing antisemitic incidents downplayed.

The university responded inadequately to their concerns, made over the course of a year, Albucher and Levin say, thereby fostering a “hostile and unwelcoming environment” for Jewish employees working for Stanford’s Counseling and Psychological Services office (CAPS).

Released publicly on Tuesday, the complaints – filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing – allege violations of state and federal laws, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

Representing Albucher and Levin are attorneys with the Louis D. Brandeis Center, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit focusing on Jewish civil rights issues on college campuses.

The trouble began in November 2019, Albucher and Levin say, when CAPS employees were asked to join weekly seminars run by the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion program within the clinic, formed earlier that year. The DEI program is facilitated by fellow psychologists and mental health professionals within CAPS.

Most programs and departments at Stanford have internal DEI programs, as do universities across the Bay Area and around the country. According to the program’s web page, the initiative aims to help Stanford’s psychological services office provide care “rooted in cultural humility and social-justice values.”

“We at CAPS are staunchly dedicated to centering diversity, equity, and inclusion not only in the services we provide but within the multiple systems we inhabit,” the description says.

Albucher said he was “excited about and supportive” of the DEI program at first. “As a psychiatrist working on a campus like Stanford, where people from all over the world come to study, teach and do research, it only helps to increase one’s knowledge base about other cultures and religions,” he told J.

But once DEI programming began, his view soured.

Before their first meeting, CAPS staff were asked to read “White Fragility,” the 2018 New York Times bestseller by Robin DiAngelo. Albucher said the assignment did not appeal to him as an introduction to DEI training because it is deeply pessimistic about race relations in the U.S., and it argues that all white people are fragile on race issues, no matter what.

When he expressed that view, according to the complaint, “several CAPS co-workers verbally harassed and intimidated” him. At an early meeting he was berated, the complaint says, for not having read the book, thereby “co-opting the meeting because other participants had to explain the book to him.”

“When I spoke up, probably five or six people jumped on me,” he told J.

Albucher, a member at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco who specializes in anxiety disorders and the treatment of university students, is the former director of the CAPS program, which he led from 2008 to 2018.

To discuss “White Fragility,” the complaint says, DEI members split up CAPS staff by race, facilitating “space for white staff” to “process [their] reaction” to it. The group was later named the “Whiteness Accountability group/book club.”

The complaint describes “racially segregated affinity groups that separated CAPS staff members on the basis of race or perceived race. One of these groups was for white staff, and another group was for staff comprising minorities of color.

“No affinity group was ever created for members of Jewish ancestral identity,” it continues. “As a result, there was no ‘space’ in the DEI program for Dr. Albucher and Ms. Levin to safely express their lived Jewish experience.”

Albucher said he was deeply uncomfortable with the discussion groups reserved for white people and refused to join them, although he continued to attend DEI seminars.

“As a gay Jewish man, I have have my own perceptions on white supremacy, and the history of this country,” he said. “My family has had to contend with white supremacy,” he said, adding that he has family members who died in the Holocaust.

Levin also did not want to join the whites-only group, telling a DEI member that “as a Jewish person, she does not feel an affinity with white identity,” according to the complaint. She said the individual responded that “this was the direction the clinic was going” and she needed to participate if she “wanted to be part of a collegial environment.”

Albucher and Levin allege a pattern of anti-Jewish bias within the DEI program. The complaint cites a DEI seminar on May 20, 2020 at which concerns about antisemitism were downplayed following a racist and antisemitic “Zoombombing” incident four days earlier, when the N-word and swastikas were shared at a student government meeting.

At the follow-up meeting, the complaint says, DEI committee members “addressed the racist and anti-Black content” but did not mention antisemitism or the swastikas.

When Albucher asked about the omission, he was told that the committee “decided to omit any mention of anti-Semitism so as not to dominate the discussion about anti-Black racism,” the complaint says. When he brought it up again, he was accused of “trying to derail” the conversation.

DEI committee members “justified the omission of anti-Semitism,” the complaint says, “by insisting that unlike other minority groups, Jews can hide behind their white identity.” During the meeting, Albucher and Levin say they were “subjected to anti-Jewish stereotypes,” such as that Jews are “wealthy and powerful business owners.”

Levin was “too intimidated to speak,” the filing says, “fearful of experiencing similar hostility and harassment on the basis of her Jewish identity and race.”

After that meeting, Albucher decided he would no longer attend DEI seminars.

If you are training your professionals to dismiss antisemitism, or to disregard or deny it, how does that impact the quality of care?

On May 30, 2020, Levin emailed a DEI leader asking how she could support the program. According to the complaint, the person responded that “as a Jewish, White cis woman you have immense power and privilege. It is important to understand how you are a part of the systemic racism and oppression that takes place in this country.”

On June 24, 2020, the complaint alleges that during a seminar that Levin attended, participants “lamented that the group was comprised of privileged people,” specifically “white, pass for white and Jewish people.”

That August, Levin and Albucher notified Stanford’s HR department about the “hostile climate” they were experiencing in the DEI program, the complaint says, and the HR department tried to facilitate a mediation session between the parties. Neither Albucher nor Levin felt satisfied with the outcome, and in the fall of 2020 Levin stopped participating in the “white affinity group” because of “ongoing hostility she experienced on the basis of her race and Jewish ethnic identity,” the complaint says.

On Jan. 8 of this year, the complaint alleges, Levin was again subjected to a hostile environment when, during a seminar for psychology students – prospective CAPS interns – a DEI program facilitator said the program would “explore how Jews are connected to white supremacy and will address anti-Semitism.” Another DEI representative said she “takes an anti-Zionist approach to social justice.”

Albucher and Levin first filed complaints with the U.S. Education Department in the spring. The department transferred the complaints to the employment agency.

The complaints come as Stanford grapples with other reports of anti-Jewish bias. On June 8, Hillel at Stanford director Rabbi Jessica Kirschner sent an email to her mailing list describing an “alarming amount” of online and in-person incidents stemming in large part from anti-Israel animosity in the midst of violence in Israel and Gaza. One Jewish student was told, “Don’t talk to me if you’re Jewish,” while another was told by a classmate, “I’m not going to talk to you, Nazi,” Kirschner wrote.

The university responded to a request for comment from J. on Monday, via an email from spokesperson Dee Mostofi.

“We are deeply committed to nurturing a diverse and inclusive work environment, one free from harassment and discrimination of any kind. We value and respect the dignity of every member of our community.”

The complaints, which Lewin said she hopes will be resolved out of court, demand Stanford “come into compliance” with the law by taking “concrete steps” to eliminate the “hostile environment” for Jews at CAPS, including by creating a task force to provide input on how to respond to antisemitism on campus and how to meet the clinical needs of Jewish students. Albucher and Levin are asking for a “comprehensive curriculum” on antisemitism for CAPS staff, a public statement condemning antisemitism, monetary compensation and other remedies.

Lewin said the Brandeis Center’s impetus for pursuing the claims extends beyond how Levin and Albucher were treated.

“Our concern is that this department is training therapists that provide mental health care to students on campus,” she said of the CAPS program, which employs about 30 therapists. “Our worry is that if you are training your professionals to dismiss antisemitism, or to disregard or deny it, how does that impact the quality of care?”

Albucher said it concerned him that it appeared politics were being infused into health care.

“How are they going to work clinically with Jewish students? We need to be improving our skills within the mental health field,” he said. “It’s clear these people will put politics ahead of science.”

This article originally appeared in Jweekly.com. Reposted with permission.

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