Longtime UCSF doctor “retires” to Palestinian territories
By Joe Eskenazi
When Dr. Robert Stern met me in front of the Cole Valley bakery he makes sure to buy a fresh baguette from every morning, he was decked out in an eye-catching bright vest, a matching plaid shirt and tie and, to tie it all together, noticeably rose-colored spectacles.
He’s going to stand out in East Jerusalem. No doubt about it.
After 31 years as a professor and researcher at U.C. San Francisco Hospital, Stern retired in December – “But I’m not a guy who goes on cruises or plays golf.”
Instead, later this month, the 72-year-old will traipse to the Holy Land where he’ll head up the pathology department at Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem.
Stern, a German-born Jew whose family fled der Vaterland in 1938, is taking over a department that probably has less money to spend than UCSF allots for floor wax. He’s leaving his comfortable home within walking distance of his lab for a dorm room in East Jerusalem. He’ll be earning a stipend – but he didn’t even ask how much. And his safety? “It’s going to be an issue. There are no guarantees,” he says, quietly.
“I am apprehensive, bordering on being scared. But everyone has to get out of their comfort zone. That’s where you learn.”
Simply put, Stern has reached the point in his life ...
where tangible accomplishments take on far more resonance. He wants to do something. And, in his own small way, he’d like to help bring peace to the Middle East.
“There’s something about being in a situation full of despair and hopelessness that permits you to do terrible things. I’ve got all these young minds available to me, and these kids are going to be led down the path of doing terrible things because of their despair. I’m a good teacher. I’m a good researcher. I can turn that despair into something more positive,” he says.
Stern has spent time working and lecturing in Israel for nearly half a century (as a med student in 1958, he walked rounds in Tel Aviv with Dr. Chaim Sheba in the facility that has since been renamed the Chaim Sheba Medical Center). A decade ago, on a whim, he phoned up Birzeit University in the West Bank and asked if he could lecture there, too. The notion of an academic visitor was unheard of. When he arrived on campus (after a taxi ride from Jerualem to Ramallah and another one from Ramallah to Birzeit) the entire faculty greeted him – hundreds of people.
The doctor describes himself as “no left-winger” on Israeli-Palestinian issues, and yet his decade of experience lecturing to Palestinian audiences – and, more tenably, traveling to meet them – has affected his worldview.
“You cross checkpoints and they’ve got these young Israeli soldiers with flashlights, 18, 19 years old. Everyone has to show their passport. And I turned to the woman next to me and asked ‘What do they want?’ And she says, ‘Everything.’ And she said it with such despair,” he recalls.
“I think to myself, this is demeaning and brutalizing and you’ve got an innocent young kid and put him in the position of having to maintain hegemony over these people. It’s not good for the soul.”
While achieving Mideast peace through pathology is something of a falafel-in-the-sky notion, Stern has more immediate goals as well. Currently, all of Al-Quds University’s pathology courses are taught by an overburdened 31-year-old junior professor who just graduated from the program himself last year. In short, the university doesn’t just want Stern, it needs him.
The 72-year-old hopes to bring a couple of grants Al-Quds’ way. He hopes that in a few years time, the pathology department is running well enough that it doesn’t need him overseeing it. And then he hopes to travel to another Middle Eastern university and do this again.
“It’s nice to be needed,” he says with a smile, his eyes twinkling behind their rose-colored lenses. “How often in life can you make a real difference?”