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And I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.” It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.

“A Plea for Caution From Russia,” Vladimir Putin, New York Times, Sept. 12, 2013

Vladimir – if I can call you that – you are quite wrong. And the fact that I, an unknown, can tell you, a former KGB officer turned dictator of Russia, this, shows just how wrong you are. America, and we Americans, are quite exceptional. I know this for a fact.

This will be the second time I have repeated this family story.

My great-grandfather, Nathan Trigaboff, and his father, Hershel Trigaboff, lived in Kiev, part of the Russian Empire, at the turn of the century. When Nathan was a teenager, the Czarist government of Russia drafted him to join their army.  This was, of course, the same army that often led pogroms against Russian Jews.

Nathan, and his father Hershel, knew that for a Jew to join the Russian Imperial Army was basically to receive a death sentence.  Nathan would either be worked to death, killed by his comrades at arms, who were usually virulent anti-Semites, or killed in battle.

So, to save his son, Hershel sent Nathan to the United States of America, the one nation then in existence that actually welcomed the ethnic, religious, and racial minorities of the world.  That included Jews.
And Hershel did so knowing full well the legal consequences – Russian law demanded that the father of a draft evader must serve in his son’s place.  To avoid the fate he had saved his son from, Hershel then sliced off his own trigger finger, making it impossible for him to use a gun and, thus, useless to the army.  Years later, Hershel Trigaboff joined his son in America, and sure enough, his Ellis Island records make note of his missing finger.

In the United States, both father and son made a living. My great-grandfather started, and ran, his own trucking company. His son, my grandfather, became a scientist and a businessman, working on the atomic bomb project in Tennessee, and helping to establish the Este Lauder company in New York. His son, my father, became a very successful doctor. None of this would have been possible in the Old Country of Russia. None of this would have been possible outside the United States.

Because of the United States of America’s willingness to embrace a family of poor Russian Jews, I exist today. I have my own family. I have my advanced degrees. I have my own career, where I get to write columns that contradict Russian dictators.

Now, not every American has such a dramatic backstory as my family’s, but most have something very important to tell. Most Americans are descended from someone who, when they came over, had nothing. Maybe this new immigrant was someone who had been discriminated against in the Old Country. Maybe this new immigrant had made a mistake in the Old World, and just came over to our shores to make a new start. Many, if not most, of these immigrants, succeeded in their second life. Certainly, they all had the opportunity to succeed. And certainly, all of these people – and their descendants – have rights and privileges that are unheard of for other people across most of the globe.

The United States is the oldest and longest-continuously functioning republic in the world. American’s have rights to speak as they want, to own property, to worship, or not, and to vote in or out their government. Although many complain about our political system, it still allows American outsiders from poor and humble backgrounds, such as Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton, to rise through the ranks to the ultimate public office of the Presidency. Major issues are debated, sometimes ad nauseam, every day. Even when this nation goes to war, it has never been for ill-gotten gain, but instead to protect life, promote democracy, or oppose aggression.

Not one other nation can say these things. Not one.

In the Netherlands, and the rest of Europe, people are imprisoned for speaking their mind, and Jews cannot appear safely in public wearing a Jewish kippah (head covering).

In Syria, men, women and children are slaughtered for belonging to the wrong faith, or even for belonging to a different sect of the same faith.

Oh… and in Russia, wars of aggression are waged, ethnic and religious minorities are suppressed, and human rights are not respected.

Yes, Vladimir, the United States of America is an exceptional nation. And I suspect that you know this too, which is why you chose to send us such a discourteous letter.

Originally published at

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