By Cassie Paton
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The University of California's regents declared on Wednesday they would not tolerate anti-Semitism on campus but rejected a proposal to equate anti-Zionism with religious bigotry, as they tried to defuse tensions between pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian students.
The statement of principles, approved unanimously by the university's governing board, stems from concerns among Jewish students and faculty about a rise in anti-Semitism on several UC campuses in response to recent student activism in support of Israel.
Pro-Palestinian campus activists, however, say they are simply voicing legitimate criticism of Israel, which, they say, is being misconstrued, creating a pretext for pro-Israeli activists to squelch the Arab side of the Mideast debate.
The regents rebuffed draft language that would have broadly defined opposition to Israel as anti-Jewish bigotry, with the board instead voting to disapprove "anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism."
The action by California's flagship public university, reflecting a broader conflict playing out on college campuses nationwide, sought to strike a balance between condemning intolerance and protecting free speech.
The UC system is considered one of the most prestigious higher education institutions in the country, comprising 10 campuses including the University of California, Berkeley and the University of California, Los Angeles.
Critics said a blanket condemnation of anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism, as contained in the original draft, would have trampled academic freedom and opened the university to costly litigation.
Pro-Palestinian students called the statement the latest in a series of efforts to muzzle political criticism of Israel, including student movements pressing for divestiture or boycotts against the Jewish state.
"Are our stories and our struggles simply meant to be built over, forgotten?" asked Omar Zahzah, a UCLA graduate student whose relatives, he said, were forced from their homes with the 1948 founding of Israel.
But supporters of the draft, including student regent Abraham "Avi" Oved, whose parents were born in Israel, said anti-Zionism has evolved into a politically coded contemporary brand of anti-Semitism.
From their perspective, anti-Zionist rhetoric - marked by calls for Israel's destruction or denial of its right to exist - frequently feeds more overt forms of anti-Jewish hatred.
He cited an instance in which the phrase "Zionists should be sent to the gas chamber" was scrawled on a building at UC Berkeley after a student senate campaign calling for university divestment from U.S. companies doing business with Israel.
Regents, meeting at UC's San Francisco campus, ultimately adopted an amended statement declaring: "Anti-Semitism, anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism and other forms of discrimination have no place at the University of California.
Some students said the final language still conflated a political doctrine with anti-Jewish bias and could suppress free speech.
"Anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism have very little to do with each other," said Tallie Ben Daniel, an academic advisory council coordinator for the group Jewish Voice for Peace.
(Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Sara Catania and Andrew Hay)