US Jewish professor accepts Saudi prize

Ronald Levy says he doesn't know whether his selection was political, but feels honored.

An American Jewish professor who recently won Saudi Arabia's top medical research prize - sometimes called the Arab Nobel - says he still doesn't know whether his selection was political, but feels he was able to deliver an "anti-bias" message during his visit to the kingdom. Ronald Levy, who heads Stanford University's oncology department, told The Jerusalem Post that he was pleased to be the first Jewish recipient of the King Faisal International Prize in medicine for his research into cancer-fighting antibodies. "My goal was to push the universality of the problem we work on, and we did - people really received the message," Levy said in a phone interview Thursday from California. He said he saw the prize as an honor on its own, but as a graduate of Israel's Weizmann Institute, he said he felt it was "even more special because of the anti-bias part of the story," even though the subject of his time in Israel or his own Jewishness was never formally broached. "No matter whether there was any thought in their mind, it was in my mind more special than winning a prize in Japan," said Levy, who said his postdoctoral fellowship in Rehovot during the 1970s was "formative." That fellowship was left off the curriculum vitae published on the King Faisal Foundation Web site - the only public indication of any hesitance by Levy's Saudi hosts over his background. Levy said it remains a mystery, and that he did not ask the organizers to correct the oversight after soliciting advice from Martin Indyk, the former US ambassador to Israel, who happened to speak at Stanford shortly before Levy left for the Middle East. "I still don't know what to think about it - but I care a lot less about it now having gone through it and having accomplished what we set out to do," Levy said. Levy, 67, was accompanied by his Israeli wife, Shoshana, and his three daughters, the youngest of whom was born in Rehovot while her parents were studying at the Weizmann Institute. Levy said the Saudi consulate in Los Angeles requested birth and marriage certificates before issuing visas, but never asked about stamps from Ben-Gurion Airport that dot the family's US passports. He said the family was given first-class treatment from the moment they landed in Riyadh until they left, with chauffeured limousines taking them on shopping and sight-seeing excursions as well as on tours of the kingdom's first co-ed university, still under construction, and to a hospital, where Levy made rounds. "There was no formal acknowledgement that I was different from the other winners," Levy said. "We were always wondering whether it was an issue, and even now we wonder whether it was an issue, but we never brought it up, and it never came up."