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Former Obama administration official arrested after video shows Islamophobic language spewed at food vendor


By Artemis Moshtaghian, CNN

(CNN) — A former Obama-era National Security Council official was arrested Wednesday after a series of videos shared widely on social media showed him using hate-laden, Islamophobic language against an employee working inside a New York City food cart, police said.

Stuart Seldowitz, 64, pleaded not guilty Thursday to two counts of fourth-degree hate crime/stalking and one count of second-degree aggravated harassment, court records show.

Seldowitz was released without bail, according to court records. CNN has reached out to his attorney, Scott Laurence Bookstein, for comment.

Before his arrest was announced, Seldowitz confirmed to CNN in an email it is him in the videos, which were recorded by a vendor from inside a food cart on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and appear to be from different days.

In the videos posted online this month, Seldowitz mocks Islam, taunts the man about his citizenship status, accuses him of supporting Hamas and references the ongoing Israel-Hamas war.

“You support killing little children,” Seldowitz says to the vendor in one video. The vendor retorts, “You kill children, not me.”

Seldowitz replies, “If we killed 4,000 Palestinian children, you know what? It wasn’t enough!”

The videos come as the US is experiencing an “unprecedented” increase in reported anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bias incidents since the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel, according to the Council on American-Islamic relations.

At the same time, the reports of antisemitic incidents across the country have also spiked, with FBI Director Christopher Wray saying last month the threat was reaching “historic levels” and the Anti-Defamation League reporting a 388% increase in reported incidents in the weeks following October 7, compared to the same period last year.

Tensions over the ongoing war in Gaza have also been high in New York City in recent weeks as pro-Palestinian demonstrations have been taking place.

In one of the videos posted online, Seldowitz tells the vendor, “We’re going to put big signs here saying this guy believes in Hamas.”

In another video, Seldowitz asks the man whether he’s familiar with Egypt’s General Intelligence Service, better known as the Mukhabarat.

“Mukhabarat in Egypt will get your parents,” Seldowitz says to the vendor. “Does your father like his fingernails? They’ll take them out one by one.”

The former government official then holds up his phone, says, “Smile for me,” and laughs.

Seldowitz also makes derogatory comments about the Prophet Mohammed, ridiculing Islam, which he appears to believe is the vendor’s religion.

When asked via email for additional comment on the videos, Seldowitz said, “Happy to talk (Wednesday). What was absent from the video is what (the vendor) said before the video.”

Seldowitz, 64, told the Daily Beast while he started up the conversation with the food vendor about current affairs, the video clips only show one side of the story. He told the outlet the vendor instigated the interaction by allegedly expressing his support for Hamas.

The former official also told City & State, “I regret the whole thing happened and I’m sorry.” He added, “But you know, in the heat of the moment, I said things that probably I shouldn’t have said.”

Seldowitz served as acting director for the National Security Council South Asia Directorate in the early 2000s, according to a since-removed profile page on lobbying group Gotham Government Relations’ website. According to his LinkedIn profile, Seldowitz served in the position from February 2009 to January 2011 during former President Barack Obama’s administration.

“Gotham Government Relations has ended all affiliation with Stuart Seldowitz, an individual who hasn’t contributed to our work in years,” a statement on the New York City-based group’s website reads. “The video of his actions is vile, racist, and beneath the dignity of the standards we practice at our firm.”

Seldowitz has been berating vendor for 2 weeks, advocate says

The managing director of an advocacy group representing street vendors across New York City told CNN on Tuesday the man who took the videos told him Seldowitz had been tormenting his food cart since November 8.

Mohamed Attia, of the Street Vendor Project, said the vendor told him he did not instigate the conversation with Seldowitz.

Attia said the Egyptian-born vendor, identified only by his first name, Mohamed, doesn’t speak English well and for that reason doesn’t engage in many conversations with his customers, let alone complicated and nuanced conversations about war.

“Mohamed told me he doesn’t know how to respond to or know what to say to the guy and kept playing it safe by asking the guy to go away,” Attia told CNN.

The advocacy group is “appalled by the racist Islamophobia” seen in the videos, they said in a statement, adding the vendors at the center of this incident “feared speaking out would put them at risk of displacement.”

“No one should have to choose between harassment or displacement,” the statement posted on social media reads.

New York City Council member Julie Menin reached out to the organization and reported the incidents to police, Attia said.

“This is vile hate speech and harassment and truly abhorrent,” Menin tweeted Tuesday. “There is no place for hate in our community and city.”

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