New diagnosis: UCSF pathologist off to East Jerusalem

Dr. Robert Stern sees the world through rose-colored glasses. No, really — his spectacles have a rose-hued tint.

Fittingly, some would argue that the longtime U.C. San Francisco pathology professor is making a naively altruistic move. Next month Stern leaves the post he has held for 31 years, departing his comfortable abode in the city and heading to East Jerusalem to lecture — practically for free — in a Palestinian medical school.

“I am apprehensive — bordering on being scared,” said the 72-year-old single grandfather and German-born Jew. “But everyone has to get out of their comfort zone. That’s where you learn.”

His new post at Al-Quds University comes with a minuscule research budget and one teaching colleague — a professor 40 years his junior who earned his degree last year. And Stern hasn’t even asked how much his stipend will be.

“I’m not doing this for the money. I’m reaching retirement age and I needed a reason to get out of bed in the morning. I’m not a guy who goes on cruises or plays golf,” he says.

“I’m blessed with good health and enough energy. You do the first third of your life preparing for what you’re going to do and the next third doing what you do. The third part should be service.”

Stern’s first trip to Israel came during his medical student days in 1958. He walked rounds with Dr. Chaim Sheba at what is now known as the Chaim Sheba Medical Center in Tel Aviv. His medical research has taken him back to Israel many times throughout the years. Yet it wasn’t until 10 years ago when he was lecturing at Hebrew University that he decided, on a whim, to “give equal time” to Birzeit University in the West Bank.

When he called and asked if he could visit, the woman answering the phone was stunned. “No one ever comes to see us,” she said in a voice barely above a whisper.

Stern took a shared taxi from Jerusalem to Ramallah, and another to Birzeit. And when he stepped onto the university’s campus, he was greeted by every professor in the school. Hundreds of academics, some in linguistics or soil management, showed up to greet the pathologist from San Francisco.

It was a life-changing experience for Stern. The Palestinian students’ desire for knowledge was palpable; they had a real use for a man who has published 220 papers in his field.

The United Negro College Fund created the catchphrase “a mind is a terrible thing to waste,” but Stern finds it equally applicable to the West Bank.

“Education can be truly transforming, and I’ve got all these young minds available to me. There something about being in a situation full of despair and hopelessness that permits you to do terrible things — that’s why communism and fascism came. These kids could be led down the path of doing terrible things because of their despair,” he says.

“I’m a good teacher. I’m a good researcher. I can turn that despair into something more positive.”

He hopes to teach until the program can carry on without him — which could take years. And then he hopes to go somewhere else in the Middle East and do the same thing.

Stern’s grown children “think I’m crazy,” he said. “But I think they’re slowly coming around.”

Currently Al-Quds graduates can practice medicine in Europe, the United States and the Arab world — but not in Israel. Stern thinks this is a mean-spirited policy and hopes to do what he can to change it. He might even enlist his old buddy from Harvard’s class of ’57, Zaid Samir Al-Rifa’I, the former prime minister of Jordan, as an ally.

“I have fantasies of starting a real research program over there,” he said. “It’s nice to be needed. How often in life can you make a real difference?”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.