Under pressure from Jewish organizations, members of the University of California's governing board called for an overhaul of a proposed set of system-wide principles against intolerance, saying it should explicitly address anti-Semitism.
About two dozen people gave input to the board of regents at their meeting at UC Irvine about the proposed "Statement of Principles Against Intolerance," a broad declaration that free speech advocates contended would amount to censorship.
Jewish organizations concerned about a series of incidents on campuses — including swastikas and Hitler graffiti — asked the UC system in March to take a stronger stand and adopt the U.S. State Department's definition of anti-Semitism, which includes demonizing Israel or denying its right to exist.
What UC officials drafted was a statement that did not include an explicit mention of anti-Semitism or Israel. The proposed principles aim to protect any individual or group, by calling for its 10 campuses to be "free from acts and expressions of intolerance." It would prohibit "depicting or articulating a view of ethnic or racial groups as less ambitious, less hardworking or talented, or more threatening than other groups," among other things.
Groups critical of Israel's treatment of Palestinians applauded the omission of the State Department's definition in the statement, saying they feared it could be used to silence them. But Jewish groups said they felt the university was ignoring a problem that needed to be addressed.
On Thursday, Regent Norman Pattiz urged the body to take a real stand against the anti-Semitic incidents described by students and said that was the intent behind making such a declaration. UC is the first statewide university to consider adopting such a set of principles against intolerance.
"To not recognize why this subject is even being brought up is to do a disservice to those who brought it up in the first place," he said.
His comments were echoed by other regents and welcomed by Jewish students and groups. They said they hope a new statement will address a rash of anti-Semitic incidents.
"They want to examine the issue and for that we're grateful," said Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, executive director of the AMCHA Initiative, which fights to end anti-Semitism on campuses. "There is a difference between taking a position against a government and calling for its elimination."
Jewish groups say campus debates over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were disintegrating into the harassment of Jewish students. The State Department's definition of anti-Semitism clearly identifies the different forms of anti-Semitism that exist, they say.
UC President Janet Napolitano in a May radio interview had expressed support for adopting the State Department's definition.
Critics of Israel said it was too soon to tell what a revamped statement would look like, or mean.
"As a Jewish student, obviously I have every interest in combatting anti-Semitism where it does exist on campus," said David McCleary, a statewide executive board trustee for the UC student workers' union. "That said, we can't be conflating legitimate criticism of a political ideology and the actions of a government with anti-Semitism."
UC officials said the statement is intended as a declaration of the school's beliefs and that disciplinary measures would still be guided by existing policies and federal laws.
Watson reported from San Diego.