Jewish oncologist accepts prestigious award from Saudis

It’s not every day a Jewish doctor is presented with an award Saudi Arabians refer to as the “Arab Nobel Prize.” 

Yet, on March 29, Saudi Arabian royalty honored Dr. Ronald Levy for breakthrough research he conducted 30 years ago in channeling the power of the body’s own immune system to fight cancer.

Levy, chief oncologist at Stanford University School of Medicine for 19 years, developed the concept that a drug made from naturally produced blood protein (an antibody) could be a cancer-fighting machine.

The Stanford resident joins an elite group of 19 Americans who have received King Faisal International Prizes in medicine since they were first awarded in 1982. Each winner is given a medal, a certificate in English and Arabic and a $200,000 cash prize.

A member of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, Levy was initially curious if nationality and religion in any way influenced the selection process. While nothing on the King Faisal Foundation’s Web site suggested that to be true, Levy acknowledged that the organization “does not have a history of picking Jews.”


Dr. Ronald Levy gives his acceptance speech at the awards ceremony in Riyadh.

“That’s when I came to realize this is a sign of openness,” he said. “It made the award more special, and elevated it in my mind beyond the science and recognition. I really came back [from Saudi Arabia] with that validated.”

The King Faisal Foundation, a philanthropic organization founded in 1976 by the eight sons of the late King Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, awards prizes in five categories each year to those who make notable contributions in the fields of Islamic studies and service, Arabic language and literature, and science and medicine. Levy was one of six winners from six countries this year.

Stanford School of Medicine Dean Philip Pizzo nominated Levy almost a year ago. Levy admitted he “completely forgot” about the prize until he received a congratulatory fax from the selection committee in January.

“I was very surprised,” Levy recalled. “At the time the nomination went in, I thought it was a little strange. I’m Jewish, I have tight connections with Israel and was pretty sure once they realized that, they wouldn’t consider me.”

Levy checked the foundation’s Web site and noticed his picture next to other prizewinners. He started thinking what a visit to Saudi Arabia would be like; but more importantly, whether his Jewish faith and ties to Israel (his wife and one of his daughters are Israeli) would influence the way locals viewed him and his family — or worse, bar them from the country.  

The official Saudi Arabian stamp on his family’s passports, next to those signifying travels in and out of Israel, quelled Levy’s apprehension. “No one asked us about Israel, or anything Jewish per se,” he said of his arrival March 28. “The whole process went very smooth. When we arrived, we were pleasantly surprised at every turn.”

On the night of the ceremony, 1,500 people, including Saudi Arabia’s king, princes and princesses, gathered at a convention center owned by the King Faisal Foundation. Levy sat at the king’s table, while his family mingled with female royalty.   

“There was security like I’ve never seen before,” Levy recalled.  “It made me nervous at first.”

That feeling didn’t last long. After Levy accepted the prize, he and his wife, Shoshana, and their three grown daughters got a taste of fame while riding camels, touring the local hospital and taking in the sights.

“Since the ceremony was nationally televised, strangers would approach us and want their picture taken with us,” Levy said. “We were celebrities.”

Back home, Levy experienced similar treatment. He heard from longtime friends,  including Palo Alto High School classmates and Beth Am congregants.

“The whole experience was fantastic,” Levy said. “Scientifically, family-wise and diplomatically. We really made some openings.”