At one point in his fiery speech, Black Muslim Minister Louis Farrakhan roared a question to the rafters of Madison Square Garden. "Would you say the Jews who are angry with me are righteous people?"
The crowd of about 24,000 blacks shouted, "No!"
Farrakhan, smiling, pretended not to hear. "You say they are not?"
Rising to their feet, his listeners thundered back, "No!"
Tensions between blacks and Jews, a frequent preoccupation of New York politics, had seemed to recede during the recent primary in which the victor, Mayor Edward I. Koch, long the nemesis of many black leaders, trailed a black candidate by only 4 percentage points among blacks. The campaign was largely free of racial rhetoric.
But the Monday night rally held by Farrakhan, head of the Chicago-based Nation of Islam, brought out once again the ugly divisions in New York City, whose population is about one-quarter black and 16 percent Jewish.
Five days before Farrakhan's speech, the culmination of a controversial 14-city tour, Koch called a news conference to denounce Farrakhan as anti-Semitic. City Clerk David Dinkins, the highest black elected official in city government, joined him. Gov. Mario M. Cuomo also criticized the Muslim leader.
Farrakhan followers said he had received numerous death threats after the statements. At the rally, surrounded on the platform by six female bodyguards in white robes and crimson epaulets and flanked by 13 blue-uniformed members of the Fruit of Islam, his paramilitary force, Farrakhan said of his critics, "Ultimately the aim is to murder me."
Noting that Koch compared him to Hitler, he said, "The germ of murder has been sown in the heart of Jews."
Koch last week called Farrakhan, whose tour was partly funded by a $5 million loan from Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, "a Nazi in clerical garb." In his speech, Farrakhan called Koch a "devil," adding that "Mr. Koch ought to be very careful because the Scripture says upon Jesus' return, he will not accept certain characteristics."
The crowd roared its approval to what Farrakhan's followers later said was an allusion to homosexuality -- an allegation that the mayor has repeatedly denied.
Those who criticize him, Farrakhan said, would face "a disgraceful death." Addressing Jews in particular, he said, "If you rise up and try to kill me, then Allah promises you that he will bring on this generation the blood of the righteous.
"All of you will be killed outright . . . . You cannot say 'never again' to God, because when He puts you in the oven, 'never again' don't mean a thing."
Security at the speech was tight as every person who entered the Garden was searched, men and women separately. The procedures delayed the speech by nearly three hours.
At several points in his speech, Farrakhan compared himself to Jesus. He also assailed whites and some Arabs in particular for racism. "White people feel superior to black people, don't they?" he asked. The audience shouted back, "Yes!"
Today, reaction to the speech was divided. Calling Farrakhan "a messenger of hate," Koch said, "There are bigots in this city. If you simply decide you're going to ignore them they are going to become stronger . . . . Did Adolf Hitler prosper because people paid attention to him or because people didn't realize how dangerous he was? Farrakhan has more followers than Hitler."
Two black ministers defended Farrakhan, however, saying that he was not threatening politicians or Jews, only preaching Scripture. "He spoke in the same vein as the prophets who say that those who oppose Yahweh in word and deed will meet a horrible end," said the Rev. Lawrence Lucas, pastor of the Resurrection Catholic Church in Harlem.
Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker of Harlem's Canaan Baptist Church said Farrakhan was "only responding to Koch's attacks. He's saying, as the Bible says, that the wages of sin is death . . . . He's not talking about putting a bomb at Gracie Mansion."
Explaining Farrakhan's popularity -- his audience Monday night cut across class lines -- Walker said, "Black people exist on the edge of rage against white people. Farrakhan provides an outlet. He's an attractive speaker because he gives Whitey hell."