Gaza. Terrorism. Palestine. Bombings. Ariel Sharon.

The words could come from front-page headlines about escalating violence in the Middle East. In fact, they were drawn from a colloquium of students who met around an oval seminar table on November 9, the same day that two Israeli helicopters launched a fatal rocket attack on a Pales-tinian militia commander.

But the 17 undergraduate and graduate students in Joel Beinin's course "Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict" hadn't gathered to talk about current events. As they turned the pages of their course books, looking at maps of the United Nations partition that established the state of Israel in 1948, they were examining events and policies that set in motion the battle for sovereignty that persists today.

"Students sign up for the class because they want to understand today's newspaper articles," says Beinin, an associate professor of history and newly elected president of the Middle East Studies Association. "But I tell them, 'You're gonna have to be patient and go back 100 years first.' "

Beinin has been teaching the course since he arrived at Stanford in 1983. In alternate years he lectures to accommodate large enrollments, but he prefers the more intimate seminar format. There, he can guide students toward the issues that drive competing claims to water rights and to the political motivations that may lurk behind public posturings. As his students offer differing interpretations of events, Beinin makes a point of being up front about his own reading of the area's history. "This is my gloss," he will say, or, "Now the way I see this passage. . ."

Beinin became the target of several student letters in the Stanford Daily in October after he participated in a history department teach-in called "Crisis in Israel/Palestine: Thinking Historically About Current Events." In his presentation he noted that Jews had been victims of unspeakable crimes in the 20th century and that it was not unusual for people who had been victimized to turn their trauma against others. But the letter writers objected to what they described as Beinin's "severely biased" and "one-sided" presentation, and one student argued that the history professor had "willfully neglected to mention the long and bloody history of Palestinian barbarism against the Jews of Israel."

The blame is misdirected, says Beinin, because he can't be held accountable for the teach-in organizers' failure to find a faculty member who would support the Israeli viewpoint. "I don't claim to be neutral, objective or unbiased," he says. "What I claim is that I have very good historical evidence to support my opinion."

Beinin argues that "Historians can't stand suspended over the world and investigate from a position that is detached from who they are and how they were brought up."

Beinin traces his academic interests to his teenage years, when he was a youth leader of the Mapan party, a leftist Zionist organization his mother and father belonged to. His parents had returned to New York, where Beinin was born in 1948, after living for a number of years in Palestine.

"They thought, like a lot of ethical intellectuals, that a Jewish state would disenfranchise Arabs and that a binational state should therefore be established," Beinin says. He studied Hebrew as a youngster, to be able to converse with an Israeli cousin, and later learned Arabic, with an Iraqi Jew for a tutor, when he lived on his uncle's kibbutz in northern Israel.

Beinin says his teaching about Palestine also has been informed by the new school of Israeli historians that has emerged since the late 1980s, and he encourages students in his colloquium to study widely differing voices among those revisionists.

"Every historian has an ax to grind," he told the class in the final minutes of a recent session. "The bad historians are the ones who tell you they're the only ones who are objective."